When a father goes out in public with his child, it is a near certainty that someone (usually a woman) will make an admiring comment about what a “great” job he’s doing or possibly, quietly note how “hot” he is doing it. As a society, we set the bar low for what makes a dad “great” and being a dad makes a man sexier to a great many women. Meanwhile, a mother can perform the exact same feat and she’s either totally overlooked or admonished for some kind of parental wrong-doing. It’s so tiresome but nevertheless, a trend that is only gaining momentum rather than abating as the world adjusts to more fathers taking an active role in caring for their children.
Stuart Heritage writes a column for The Washington Post called Man With A Pram. I hold no ill-will toward Heritage and he sounds like a kind and devoted father to his infant son. My issue is how his experience highlights the troubling notion that a man is not only more attractive while caring for his child, he is also to be praised and worshiped for the simple act of parenting:
I had no idea that people went so crazy for babies. In my pre-fatherhood days, a baby was something to endure through gritted teeth because it was about to ruin your flight. I thought that was universal. But no. Take a baby outside in a sling and well-wishers will swarm around you. I’ve even amassed a small arsenal of stock answers, such has been the barrage of genuine affection for him. A boy. Almost two months. About 10lb. He has his mum’s eyes. No, he’s not normally this quiet. Bright yellow, smells awful, thanks for asking.
He’s not at all wrong. I’ve seen it happen numerous times, even with my own husband. He tells tales of the lady at the bank drive-thru winking and sending through lollipops when he takes the kids with him (which never happens to me) and how old ladies at the grocery store tell him what a great job he’s doing while out alone with our kids. Meanwhile, all I can report as far as the public noticing my parenting is a near throw-down with a woman at Target who suggested I take my son out of the cart because he was crying. Our experiences as parents are definitely different, no question.
I will cop to finding men who are clearly good fathers slightly more attractive than I might were they childless. I know I found my husband more attractive seeing his sweet patience with our colicky daughter, spending hours with her draped over his arm trying to coax out the gas bubbles. Part of this was just my appreciation for him as my spouse and partner in raising our children but on a more primal level, I can’t deny that seeing him be paternal was kind of sexy. I’m not sure the same could be said of his view of me post-baby. Or of any other man who sees me in public being a mother. I doubt it ratchets me up the scale of attractiveness throwing my child in a sling the way it seems to with a dad.
A large part of this is the world’s expectation of women as naturally maternal. Women should be good at mothering, says society. It should not come as a surprise when they show a knack for it. It’s the same reason why people are shocked when a mother abandons her children but if a father does the same, it elicits barely more than a shrug. Women are supposed to be ready to take on parenting and no one raises an eyebrow when they are handling it well. For men, it’s a bonus if they know their way around a sling and a diaper bag. A bonus that makes them more attractive to women, apparently.
I’m not sure I see this treatment of fathers going about their business with a baby in public changing anytime soon. It has only been a few decades since we stepped out of the dark ages and started expecting fathers to participate on a level closer to that of mothers. It can take many years for these long-held perceptions to fade away. In the meantime, I will try my hardest not to contribute to this conversation by giving points where points are not deserved. A father out in public with his baby is just that — a father, a parent, just doing what he should be doing. It should not be amazing or noteworthy if he is able to navigate the world with his child by his side. Women have been publicly caring for their kids since the dawn of man and it’s about time fathers be thought of the same way.