A trip to the zoo – it’s a staple when you’ve got a kid. A walk, some silly faces, imitate some of the animals, sometimes your child might even join in. I remember – with utmost clarity – the time I spotted a couple of women checking out my efforts, making sure I wasn’t struggling with the stroller, a second look to be sure I’d packed a play-lunch. And then as we arrived back at our cars, zoo trip over for the day, one of them said to me, “well done, dad!” She was about to lean over and wipe my brow for me, I’m sure of it.
Whatever awkwardness I might have put across wrestling with a car-seat harness I would have hoped that I hadn’t sold the image of a blatant first-timer, some fly-by-nighter usually too busy to look after the kid but forced into a Friday make-nice shift.
In fact at the time that I was clocked by these two self-appointed social services wardens I’d been in the stay-at-home dad game for a year – and I was doing an incredible job, which I based entirely on the fact that my child was still breathing. (I’m still doing that job and he’s still breathing by the way, making me employee of the month. Every month).
It was one simple sentence – meant as praise, but it seemed so patronising. And imagine if I’d tried that in return: “Nice job, mummy! First time is it? Didn’t drop her I notice. Good one!” An angry husband arriving a few minutes later, a quick scan of my number-plate in case the cops might need to be informed, a story over w(h)ine-time with friends about how the deluded guy was hitting on her in the most inappropriate and condescending way.
Mostly I just do my job – walk along behind the boss, he’s three now and has been in his role as tiny, strutting dictator of the house for 18 months or so. I’d certainly never tell any other parent what they should or shouldn’t do – because I figure that anyone keeping their child alive is doing wonderfully. Remembering that they should have clothes on, particularly when in public, and some level of engagement beyond that – because as you try to teach them about the weird and wonderful things in this world you’ll learn more than you ever forgot in return – is really extra for experts.
I make it through each day and then get on with my other job/s. I get up early to start the day several hours before I should. I squeeze things in. We all have ways of getting the various other jobs done and there’s no real right or wrong way there – it’s never anyone else’s business how you might come to do the shopping or clean the car or write a column, so long as you’re not breaking the law or hurting anyone else.
But parenting remains one of those weird areas where anyone can comment – especially if they’ve had children. If they have their children on hand right as they intend to make their point then obviously that’s a major bonus, the perfect visual aid, they can tut in your general direction as they open the lunchbox that didn’t use to be a yoghurt container, they can pause and stare down into your soul as they feed organic linseeds and just a dash of flaxseed oil from the polished chrome flask after. They can make that special look of utmost contempt because they’ve really learned, now with being up to child number three or four (and possibly that’s why they’ve lost count – what with being so good at it) that the hard work really pays off and the smart choices are the right choices and one day you’ll figure that out for yourself or grab the brochure, since you clearly look like you must need a tip or two.
I look at other parents now – in the aisles of supermarkets or department stores – with a Fight Club-styled nod. I see them worn down with a screaming brat tearing at their will to live, I see them holding back from slapping that kid into the wall, I see them wondering where their life has gone and if it will ever return and I know now that it’s just a single moment – even if it repeats as daily or weekly pattern. And that their life is filled, no doubt, with so many magical moments that make these gruesome bits no real issue at all. Even if the weight of the world is being applied with all of the pressure it can muster if only for a second or two at a time.
I look at any other parent now and think they must be doing a wonderful job if their child is breathing.