At the end of this February, I will have had my current job for nine whole years. That matches my precious record of continuous employment, my very first job at the now-extinct Thriftway supermarket chain. I like my job for the most part. The pay (room, board, love) isn’t the best. The perks (health insurance, vacations, more love) make up for it. The schedule isn’t very flexible—I’m on call 24-7, essentially, with occasional time off for therapeutic doses of whiskey. There are those who don’t consider what I do a “real” job. And that’s fine with me. I understand that our (US American, white, straight, middle class) society bestows a considerable amount of prestige to individuals based on their income level, career choice, and even job title. I had pretty much opted out of that system by the time the Schmoo arrived anyhow. Heck, when I met The Girl I was a photography student, pretty much majoring in starving artist. As it stands, Stay at Home Dad is the best job I’ve ever had or will ever likely have in the future.
Which is why I wanted to write a little bit about one of the times that society seemed intent on not letting me do it.
The Hellions go to the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio. Yeah, that SCPA, Nic Lachey’s SCPA. Three years ago we were lucky enough to be able to enroll the Schmoo in the very first class at the school’s brand new building downtown, making her a member of the first class that could spend their entire primary schooling at a K-12 creative and performing arts school. The very first class of its kind. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience for both girls (Peanut is in first grade and the Grommet will start kindergarten next year). We chose SCPA because we wanted to guarantee our children a good arts education. In an era of budget cuts and standardized testing overload, it seemed safe to send our kids to a place with Art in the name. SCPA also has an excellent academic reputation. There have been very few reasons to complain. Except this one. They didn’t know how to deal with a dad as primary caregiver.
Let me set the stage. Each year the kindergartners through 3rd graders put on elaborate (for little kids) performances. With singing and dancing, the kids get a chance to really show off the “performing” part of their education. It is a scrumptiously cute production every year and only slightly painful to sit through. As the Schmoo’s first year of big kid school approached its end, she grew more and more excited. She practiced her one line over and over. She sang her little songs ad nauseum. She was adorable.
When the fateful date arrived, we ran into one little hitch. The Girl had a work-related obligation (details are hazy as to whether she was busy at the office or on a business trip to India . . . it was 3 years ago), which meant I had to fly solo to the big shindig. No problem, said the utterly confident SAHD. Get the Grommet (still under factory warranty at this point) in the stroller. Bribe the Peanut with fruit snacks to settle down. Make sure the Schmoo is in the right clothes. Arrange to meet the Nana at the school. Get there early. Check, check, check and check! Everything appears to be going according to plan. Thirty minutes to showtime as I and the rest of the family wait in the hallway outside the dance classroom, checking the iPhone to make sure Nana isn’t lost, I hear a familiar crying. It’s not the Grommet (who is asleep) or the Peanut (who is running around in circles). It is definitely the Schmoo. Parent reflexes kicking in, I grab the Peanut, tell her to watch her little brother for a moment, and go to check on my big kid. And at the door I am rebuffed. A volunteer, not even a teacher, informs me that only mothers are allowed in the “dressing room.”
“But I can hear my kid crying. She’s obviously scared, probably just stage fright,” I respond reasonably.
“I’m sorry, but moms only in the dressing room”
“It’s not even a dressing room, it’s the Dance Classroom, I’ve been in there before. . . . C’mon, she just needs a hug. It’ll take a minute.”
“Tell me your child’s name and I’ll send her out.”
At this point I was beginning to become a bit upset. I gave her the Schmoo’s name and waited at the door, craning my neck to see if I could catch the kid’s eye. I heard the crying get worse, not surprising me at all because if there’s anything that I can depend on, it is for the #1 kid to get incredibly anxious if she feels like she has done something wrong. And having a stranger talking to her at that point was the worst thing we could do. Finally, with the other two kids losing patience/gaining consciousness I was able to flag down her actual teacher, who while sympathetic to my plight once again insisted on the Moms Only rule. She was able to coax the upset five-year-old out into the hallway, where a hug and some reassurance from Dad was all she needed to brighten up. Crisis averted just as my mom arrived. We trundled into the auditorium, and the rest of the show went off without a hitch. All’s well that ends well, . . . right?
Luckily, this was the only time this particular problem has surfaced. As far as I know, the Moms Only rule is still in place, however, and that still really pisses me off. Why this segregation? The moms were allowed in to where the boys were dressing; in fact, I later learned that dads aren’t allowed in there either. Why this paranoid separation of grown men from children? Were they worried that I was going to get cheap thrills from all of the exposed little girl flesh? As far as I could see from the hallway, that wasn’t even really an option. Nobody was nekkid or anything like that. I was and still am baffled.
I can think of two explanations. First, there is the tradition of the schoolhouse being a primarily female space. As recently as 2011 the percentage of primary school teachers who checked “female” on their application stood at 87%. The majority of school volunteers and PTA members are still women (The National PTA is looking at ways to change that phenomenon). It’s a Ladies’ Club, one with a lot of institutional inertia to overcome. And dads are often seen by teachers and other professionals as clueless boobs when it comes to kids. I understand that. I don’t like it, but it seems like something that will change as more and more dads get involved with their children at or near the level of us SAHDs. It’s one of the many little ways the patriarchy hurts guys as well, and one of the reasons we have intersectional feminist websites like this one to talk about it.
The other explanation is a bit more troubling. Sex crimes against children are nothing to take lightly. Child molester, child pornographer, these are amongst the worst crimes in our national imagination. We have a National Sex Offender registry at the FBI. And politicians eager to look tough on crime have no problem crafting draconian laws that make those on such a registry’s lives a living hell. I’ll go into this phenomenon in more depth at a later date, but for now I’d like to propose that in the frenzy to protect our kids from lurking predators, we have created a paranoid climate of mistrust. Combined with a zeal for zero tolerance, we put our schools and other child-oriented institutions in the position of being suspicious of all men. In just my own experience I have twice been approached by park staff and questioned as to why I was taking pictures of kids at the playground. My kids! Which I had to prove by showing the concerned park ranger all the pix I had taken of them at other playgrounds. (To be fair, this isn’t just on my iPhone; as a fairly serious enthusiast, I have a camera getup that can look a little intimidating.)
As I pointed out in “Why I’m So SAHD”, the stay-at-home dad population is still very small. It will probably be decades before we form anything resembling a voting bloc or a particularly powerful cultural force. So what can we do about this kind of exclusion and prejudice? For one thing, be out and unapologetic. Be loud and proud of your role as caregiver. You are going to get weird looks from grannies and suspicion from authorities, but I have found that once I explain the situation, most people understand. Second, become part of the solution at the local level. Once I have all three kids at the same school, I plan on joining the PTA and volunteering a great deal at the school. If I want to avoid having something like this happen again, then I should put myself in a position to have my concerns heard and have that policy changed if possible. Which I must admit sounds a whole heck of a lot like work. Or I could just sit around watching TV, playing video games, and hoping someone else would fix the world.
Featured Image “Tired Dad” courtesy of Blotz Photo Arts
“Showing off her acting Chops” courtesy of Blotz Photo Arts