Monday, October 27, 2008

Being Treated Like a Second-Class Parent

My son's preschool celebrated his birthday today, and both parents are supposed to come in for an hour, and bring fruit salad. So I dropped him off, bought fruit, made fruit salad, and brought it back; my wife had chaperoned a field trip for our daughter and couldn't get back on time. I explained this to the teacher and she said, "Oh, no; this is terrible! The father sometimes doesn't come, but never the mother! He would be the only one not to have his mother there." She said it sadly, not chidingly. Not interested in entertaining this sexist nonsense, I patiently explained that my son would be fine with that--now, where shall I put the fruit salad? The teacher said she would wait for my wife, or postpone it--I was not willing to have wasted my morning when I had other things to do, and discouraged this idea. Then she started calling my daughter's teacher to get my wife sent over, pronto; in the end, I called my wife and, hearing that she was on her way home anyway, asked her just to come over so that we could get on with it, even if it meant waiting another 20 minutes to start.

I've been treated as a second-class parent any number of ways in my nine years of parenting, but this time seemed less like a habitual assumption, as is usually the case, and more about the essence of mothers and fathers. The teacher told me the mother should be there for what she called the birth story--I assumed that meant the story of the labor, our home birth with midwives, all of which involved me, as far as I remember. But it turned out to be a dilute fairy tale about "before you were born" and sliding down rainbows to Earth--and into your mother's arms.

Part of why this makes me so mad is that, truth be told, it's not always easy for me to feel like I'm a good parent. I don't have a well-worn mold to fall into, and in the everyday chaos of parenting, I wonder at the end of every day how I could have done better. But I am certainly a very committed, fully engaged parent, and not some sort of back-up parent. After I showed up and brought the fruit salad, she made it clear that I was optional in the celebration of his birth, while his mother was essential. In the vaguely Christian feel of the celebration, I felt like Joseph--a benevolent figure who may have been there for the birth, but not exactly a parent like Mary.

Sure, I didn't carry my kids to term, and hardly envy my wife that. But my idea of myself as a father since then is that I have been as essential as my, er, contribution was to get the pregnancy started. As fathers, we're only less important if we choose to believe in myths like the one at the preschool, and give ourselves a smaller role in our children's lives. Like many dads today, I've chosen to have my children land in my arms, in my care as much as their mother's. If we can resist the myths and prejudices and make our own choices, the next generation will have a strong image of father's role, and maybe it won't be such an uphill battle.

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