An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Joy and Isolation: My Experience as a Stay-at-Home Dad – Part II

May 20, 2017

Thanks to all who commented, shared and gave feedback on Part I. I did not realize that many stay-at-home moms felt similarly. I appreciated hearing your experiences and I’m grateful for your support as a stay-at-home dad and writer.

stay-at-home dad in the park

A local park ‘selfie’

Playgrounds are alienating. Sonali loves them. I find them intimidating and uncomfortable.

I’ve entered a women’s domain – the dynamic is similar to standing in line to get my eyebrows threaded. I am the only man there. I’m the interloper. It is the same on the playground. The women will be happily chatting, we arrive and everyone goes silent.

Playgrounds are awkward because I’m usually the only male adult during working hours. Everyone else is a nanny/au pair, mother or grandparent. Most nannies are immigrants, usually Latin American or African, speaking broken English. In our neighborhood, many moms are foreign as well, due to the nearby locations of embassies and general international environment of Washington, D.C.

It feels very cliquey to me. It’s clear many caregivers know each other, banding together in certain sections of the park. For moms that don’t appear to know anyone, they still have security in being a woman around many other women and everyone seems generally welcoming.

Talking to me was probably always going to be a struggle for the nannies and au pairs. But as a stay-at-home dad, in their world, it’s near impossible. They have their relationships and jabber away with one another in Spanish or another non-English tongue. As I observe them and guess which country they are from, I presume many come from strictly gendered societies. For them, a man does not provide childcare and if for some reason he does, it’s definitely not outside the house.

I think most of their native cultures view men as tough, relatively unemotional creatures, not guys down on their hands and knees with their toddler making funny sounds. Raising children is not a masculine way to spend time in their culture’s eyes and they might think it’s weird seeing me with Sonali.

But the moms don’t speak to me either, except to ask questions or comment about Sonali. They usually say she’s adorable and ask her age. Then the conversation dies. I ask the same about their kid(s) and then we both smile and realize we have nothing else to say. Sometimes we’ll have extended smiles and hold eye contact a second longer because we recognize we see each other daily, but no words are exchanged.

I’m not really sure how to ‘break’ in. Asking if they are from around here seems like too much of a ‘pick up line’, as a man to a woman, so I let the interaction expire. Part of me wants to seek their advice about a child-rearing issue, but then I think, what if they are one of ‘those’ parents who once they begin speaking about raising kids, never stops talking?

I’ve noticed a marked difference between my interactions with women on the playground, versus walking with Sonali in the stroller around the neighborhood.

In many instances, I’ll come to a corner waiting for a stoplight and another mother is also there with a stroller. It’s immediately a much friendlier vibe. We’ll smile, say hello and sometimes say something more. Our interaction is as brief as the park, but it feels freer and easy.

We’re outside of the boundary, (playground yard) in a public and open space.

On the playground, everyone seems on the defensive towards me, the dad. Interactions appear stilted and uncomfortable. We’re acknowledging one’s presence and our children as a social duty, but not in an overly warm way.

People discussing their children is a universal conversation starter in almost every other social interaction between strangers, yet it is not enough for me at the local park.

I was telling my friend, an African-American guy, who grew up in the white suburbs about my feelings about playgrounds and he said something interesting. “I feel the same way when I go to a barber shop and it’s all black guys. What do I talk with them about? My life is nothing like theirs and I have nothing to say to them or in common, except that we’re all black.’

I feel judged, like everyone is watching me and measuring my interactions, seeing if I’ll meet their expectations of a ‘good father’, whatever that means to them. I feel silently evaluated; am I aloof with my daughter, or engaged and attentive? I envision them saying things like ‘can’t he tell how cold she is, or see hot it is outside and he has her in that outfit, she’s that high on the swing, etc.…’

I think people scrutinize how I handle Sonali. Our neighborhood is full of high-achievers, with very specific ideas about child-raising. I’m a first-time parent. I’ve never done this before. I’m learning every day and raising Sonali with my best judgment.

When we get there, it seems as though the kids move away. Part of this is because Sonali is often the youngest child at the park, and she can’t ‘play,’ like they are. But when the kids move to the other parts of the playground, I want Sonali to join them.

While this is annoying, I understand it. I’m more concerned about Sonali. We go to the playground, specifically for her interaction and observation of other kids. If immediately after we enter the park, the kids shift, then it becomes additionally awkward because I want to follow them with Sonali, but it feels strange and I rarely do.

Now the reason, beyond just leaving the house is moot because Sonali and I are alone again, as when we’re home, but now we’re in public.

Society still assumes women do all the child rearing.

Nearly every parent resource I’ve read online targets the mother, but never the father. The gender norms of child raising seem engrained and strict. I assumed with the reality of men more involved in their children’s lives this would be different in 2017, but I see scant evidence of this.

All the blogs, the internet message boards, even the neighborhood list-serves, automatically assume that women provide childcare. And all the activities offered to stay-at-home parents are stereotypically female interests (clothing swaps, shopping, personal grooming etc.) Nothing seems gender neutral.

As much as I crave personal interaction with adults, I don’t attend parent meet-ups, because I’m certain I’d be the only man there.

Sometimes I take Sonali to baby lap time at local libraries. For those unfamiliar, it’s a half hour period for babies who aren’t walking to bounce on their caregiver’s laps and sing songs. I’m always the only father.

If another male is present, it’s nearly always a grandfather. But we don’t talk either because again, often they are immigrants or I feel judged by them.

Another aspect of this experience to briefly mention is letting go of one’s inhibitions when interacting with young kids, especially babies is crucial. You must make silly sounds or sing nonsensical songs, whatever makes them happy as you communicate in ways they’ll understand.

But I’ve found when doing so in a mixed gender setting, it’s more trying. Everyone has a public persona we present to others, but for me, it’s much more uncomfortable to be ridiculous and fun with Sonali when I’m the gender minority or token member.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this whole situation.

This time is not about me, it’s about Sonali and giving her love, comfort, and affection while educating her about the world she inhabits.

Sometimes I miss my previous life, the intellectual stimulation, the collegial atmosphere of the office, spending time with peers.

But then I remember this; no one ever said they wished they’d spent less time with their child. It’s usually the complete opposite.

This season is special and won’t last forever. In a few months, she’ll be in school and I’ll be working outside the house again. Looking back on our time together, years from now I’ll never regret it.

It’s only a segment of my life and its benefits are exponential for Sonali’s growth while solidifying our beautiful lifetime bond.

2 Comments
Jay Herrigel
May 21, 2017 at 9:07 am

I hear ya buddy. I have felt everything you described in this blog but fought through it by searching for more topics to gain traction with some of the moms on the playground. I find that complimenting something that they do with their child works pretty well. “Hey, I liked how you reeled your child in there. I’ve never seen that work so well. Or something like it’s great to have flexibility and this time to spend with our kids.” It doesn’t always work but a lot of times I can get some traction.

It also will help when Sonali grows a little more because Lyla and Adeline make so many friends just by running around the playground. That’s another strategy that help break down the social walls.

I have to admit though that I do find myself sharing that I care for the girls and work from home. Both are true as I have a few businesses going now but I don’t feel fully validated until I throw that in the conversation. Only being labeled as a stay at home dad doesn’t sit well with me and makes me feel less worthy amongst peers. I’m a guy who worked for 15 years out of college, provided for the family, and went from Mach 1 to a much slower pace when we moved to Florida. I don’t know anything other than the Mach 1 pace and it has driven me to find every project possible in addition to caring for the kids to fill the void of my old career life.

Hang in there buddy. When we get together next, we’ll take the girls to the playground together.

    A.J. Bryant
    May 23, 2017 at 11:42 am

    Thanks for reading and the response Jay. Yes, Sonali’s age definitely isn’t helping the situation, and I do expect it to be easier when she starts walking. I like your idea of complimenting. Maybe I’ll try that. I hate that we both feel ‘less worthy’ around our peers when we say we’re stay-at-home dads. Seriously. Cheers to us who continue breaking gender stereotypes. We need to just own this, fully embrace it and no longer feel any shame about watching our daughters. I respect you a ton for watching Adeline and Lyla. In fact, I think of you often, as I reflect on how tough this is sometimes, that we’re both doing so together, though miles separate us. And it’s always fun to call you during walks and catch up. Look forward to taking all our kids to the playground together sometime. Miss ya man.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!