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Hey, maybe dadhood is the easier option
your applause, please.
I had to pick up the dry cleaning last week. I had to do a couple of things last week, but I didn’t think about most of them. I only thought about picking up the dry cleaning because when I opened the door, everybody turned to look at me with this gaze like I’d just done something really impressive. And yet, I hadn’t. All I was doing was bouncing my kid on my shoulders. But in the two years of being a dad, I’ve noticed that it’s a strikingly heartwarming thing to see a youngish dad out, running errands and wrangling his son.
People look at you when you’re a dad with a kid. And people have always looked at me everywhere. I’m a big person. I’m noticeable. So I’m used to people turning to me when I walk into a room. But this is a new thing — the way they look at me as a normal dad just out here caring for my kid in public. And not even an exceptional level of caring, all I did was put him on my shoulders and walk into a dry cleaners. The only slightly unusual thing about the situation was that I was singing some nonsense about three little ducks who got lost one day.
Apparently, this is the remanifestaion of progress1. Women can be doctors and vice presidents and prime ministers but the notion of a dad being a dad still stirs our emotions. And I don’t mean to throw shade at the people in the dry cleaning shop, I’ve now seen that exact look hundreds of times. There’s something in a human being that still looks at a dad going about basic tasks and thinks well wow, would you look at that — that dad really loves his kid.
You can probably tell that I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I’ve been thinking about it for about a year, ever since I read that great Erin Ryan piece on how moms are treated differently than dads when they’re out with their kids. And I’ve seen that dichotomy too. People don’t really notice Katie when she’s out with our son by herself — I’ve observed this. I do little social experiments at grocery stores and malls and beergardens. I’ve watched her chase the toddler. People barely register her. They register our kid because he’s usually running down the aisle, hollering gibberish about racecars and dogs and the muffin-man. People tend to notice a batshit-crazy toddler. But they don’t notice the mother chasing him.
And yet I get the red carpet treatment. I have literally been able to cut the line at the DMV because everybody saw me chasing the kid. When it’s me chasing the kid, people give me this look like they’re genuinely impressed by what I’m doing. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered. I like to think that I’m going above and beyond the biological call of duty. But I’m not. All I’m doing is making a slight fool out of myself. That’s the only trick I’ve learned about being a dad: that you’ve got to occasionally be willing to make a fool out of yourself. You’ve got to be willing to walk into a dry cleaning shop, singing some nonsense about three little ducks.2
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And it’s weird to me that admiration is the context of this look. It’s just basic parenting. What even constitutes exemplary dad-ing? Should I make that leap? I could become one of those dads who stomps around with a military-style belt carrying all my kid’s milk, toys, water, diapers and books. And yet, I suspect that I wouldn’t get the same look of admiration if I became one of those dads. It seems to me like, every time I see one of those dads, I can’t help but roll my eyes.
So maybe it easier to be a dad. Maybe it’s easier to just take the toddler into a dry cleaning shop, singing about lost little ducks, than it is to give birth to the baby. Maybe I got the good end of the deal. And I’m not trying to get all woke about this. But this is just how the world works. Yet again, it turns out that all I’ve got to do is just show up.
I’m not even a little bit ashamed to say that I’m thinking of “progress” here in terms of the Barbie movie and the narrative around it. But I already wrote about that.
One of the things that turns me off about Knausgaard is that piece in the second Struggle book (or maybe the third) where he gets all in a huff about having to take his kid to a little like community play-time thing. Like, there’s this ingrained belief —which is he sort of validates — that being a dad is emasculating. And instead of examining the belief, he gets all pissy about the situation he’s in. I guess I shouldn’t judge him for that, I guess I should respect him for being honest enough to show the world as he sees it. But that’s a whole other essay. But I think the emasculated father trope is lazy. Or maybe I only think that because I never feel emasculated. But that’s a whole other essay too. And one that I can probably get paid for.