One afternoon last summer, I was sitting on a park bench while my then 1½-year-old boy, Sonny, bopped around the playground with the unrelenting glee only a toddler can know. When he reached the top of the slide, a short green thing he’d already been up and down a dozen times that day, he must’ve suddenly been intimidated by the height. Taking a step back, Sonny screamed, “Daddy! Help!” so loudly that my ears rang.
The other parents — all moms — and even some of the kids turned and stared at us as if an episode of To Catch a Predator were being filmed right in front of them.
By now, I’m used to getting strange looks when just Sonny and I are out together; but back then, I was flush with embarrassment. I’d only recently become a stay-at-home dad and was unsure of my role. Having spent the first year of my son’s life focused on my career, I still felt like a new parent. Was I the kind of father who unabashedly showered boo-boos with kisses? Or the kind who told my kid to toughen up, with a pat on the back?
“You can do it,” I urged, standing up and walking over to the foot of the slide. “Come on, baby, go!”
But Sonny didn’t budge. Instead he sat there eyeing me, his arms in the air. When I didn’t rush over to him, he screamed “Up!” as loudly as before.
Again, the moms looked over at us. I tried to avoid eye contact. Was I doing something wrong? Or was I allowing him to face his fears? I knew he wasn’t in any real danger. He didn’t need my help.
One of the children who’d been watching — Nicole, a little girl in a purple dress and pigtails — rushed over, scaled the slide and stood behind Sonny. Her mom trudged up next to me with a ratty doll in the crook of her arm. The doll’s name was Tabitha, and only Nicole could hear what she said, or so she told Sonny about a hundred times while she waited for her turn.
After an awkward silence, the mom and I made small talk: how our mornings had been (mine, an episode of Sesame Street and a couple of hours reading Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! in silly voices; hers, an early shift at work); our kids’ names, but not our own; and the glory of living so close to a park.
“He’d never leave,” I said, with a nod at Sonny, who’d scooted over to let Nicole take a turn.
“When he looks back, he’ll always remember his daddy took him to the park,” the mom said in a whisper, keeping an eye on her daughter coming down the slide. Her shallow tone suggested there was a story, but I didn’t ask. It was one I knew all too well, having been abandoned by my own father.
Only then did it dawn on me that the reason I’d been so worried about what the moms thought was because I didn’t know what it meant to be a dad, much less one who was the primary caregiver.
My idea of fatherhood was based on what I’d seen on TV and in my neighborhood growing up. Fathers were men who worked hard, like The Wonder Years’ Jack Arnold; were tough-minded disciplinarians, like Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; or sometimes just ignored their kids while watching a game on the couch, like my best friend’s dad. What these men had in common was their role as breadwinners, not nurturers.
I was neither. I felt trapped between two worlds: the fast-paced career rat race I’d recently left, and the homemaking toddler chase I was now part of. According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, only 3.5 percent of households have a stay-at-home dad, compared to 33 percent with stay-at-home moms, but the numbers aren’t necessary to understand how rare it is for a father to care for a child. The looks I got that day — and on many others since — were all the proof I needed.
After watching the little girl survive the slide, Sonny finally found the courage to come down, too. When he reached the bottom, I shouted, “You did it!” in a falsetto tone I never imagined I’d use before I became a dad.
“I did it!” Sonny said with a wide-eyed grin before giving me a fist bump and heading back up the slide, his curly red hair bouncing with each step.
Whatever kind of father I was becoming, maybe I wouldn’t be so bad at it after all.