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Today’s First Person is part of a week-long series on fatherhood.
Please expect more of fathers; we can handle it.
When my partner and I decided to have a child, I intuitively knew the world expected less of me than of her, but I didn’t grasp what that meant in practice. Three years later, I have some idea.
Nature ignored me, it was too busy orchestrating and carrying out a coup d’état in my partner’s body to mind my presence. A full-term, 40-week pregnancy, natural labour, with forceps, and I walked out without a scratch.
I thought society was going to demand more of me. It didn’t. Most people, men and women alike, expected me to continue playing the supporting-actor role nature had assigned me in pregnancy.
I learnt this a few hours after my son’s birth, when a nurse came in the room to offer essential tips for caring for an infant. Not a single word was directed at me.
That nurse was not alone.
Whenever my mother needs information about my son’s eating or dressing, she asks me to ask my partner. My answers never seem to satisfy her.
My grandmother-in-law gives my partner a “good catch” wink every time I get up to change a diaper or prepare a bath.
At one point, we decided to blacklist cafés and restaurants that only had baby changing tables in the female restroom. Our options soon became limited and we caved in.
On the train, alone with my son, I asked the on-train service attendant to warm the baby food. A few minutes later a different male attendant walked in and handed the food to the woman across the aisle from my son, who laughed at the awkward situation. She later helped me with my bags.
My partner walked into her office after missing work because our kid had pneumonia. Her three female colleagues seemed surprised, one of them asked, “What are you doing here?” She explained that I had taken the day off to care for our son. That did little to dissipate their concern, “Still, you should go home.”
Maybe comments like this explain why my partner is at times reluctant to admit that I’m better at certain child-rearing tasks, a dynamic that does not exist in other realms of life where we take advantage of our individual strengths.
My partner and I divide our sleeping hours evenly. I find time during busy days to book doctor appointments, leave important meetings early to pick our son up at daycare and use my sick days to care for him the same as she does. I know the different sizes of his different shoes and how many clean pajamas are left in the drawer. I, too, worry if my son will eat what I concoct with what is in the fridge. I, too, have my tricks for when the menu falls flat. I can spot unusual diaper rashes, hear any wheezing in his breath and tell when a new tooth is bursting. I can see, smell, hear and sense when something is wrong with him, just like my partner.
I’m not a stay-at-home dad. I’m a mid-career professional with an extremely demanding job. But I signed up to be a full-time father and not the part-time assistant of a working mother.
At first, I was annoyed by these unfavourable assumptions about men’s parenting skills and attitudes. I found it insulting to be taken for the guy siting on the couch, feet on the table, newspaper spread open, while the spouse cooks dinner and cares for the children. I had hoped that by now fathers were being socialized as fully engaged parents and truly supportive partners.
But then it dawned on me that expecting positive assumptions about my behavior is the utmost (white) man thing to do. Everyday, my female friends and colleagues spend huge amounts of energy adjusting male assumptions, and I hoped to just walk in and have a female nurse take me seriously.
That was foolish, especially since those low expectations are not unfounded. Women have long – if not always – borne a disproportional share of child care and housework duties. And they continue to do so. Despite the fact that women now make up 47 per cent of the country’s work force, in 2015, mothers performed 61 per cent of all housework. My mother-in-law’s generation took on 75 per cent. In Brazil – the country my mother calls me from – women do 25 hours of housework for every 11 hours fathers put in – almost 2.5 times more.
While the case against men is undeniably strong, the unfavorable assumptions do not hold true for me, the majority of my male friends in opposite-sex relationships and most definitely not for male same-sex couples with kids.
So what to do? Men who sign up to be full-time fathers have to do the work that it takes, and adjust the low expectations bestowed on us by our fathers, grandfathers and their fathers. I am confident we can handle some double duty.
Last time we were at the hospital, when the pediatrician said, “Come here, Mom, I will show you how to use the inhaler,” I swallowed the sense of self-inadequacy the comment triggered and replied, “Hey, Doc, since I will be the one doing the night shifts, with dimmed lights, you may want to show it to me, too.” She did, smiling warmly.
Hopefully, in a not-too-far future, the widespread assumption will be that men are apt and engaged parents, and people will be surprised to come across one that is not.
Ricardo Tranjan lives in Toronto.