A Change Is Gonna Come

While out at a restaurant this week, Jack needed a new diaper. I took him back to the bathrooms and became suddenly optimistic when I saw a Koala Kare through an open bathroom door. That open door led to the women’s room, so I turned and walked into the men’s room. Now, having been a dad for a while, I do not ever expect to find a changing station in a men’s room. I have changed too many diapers in too many handicap stalls on too many men’s room floors to expect different. But, seeing the Koala Kare in one, I thought I might have had a chance in the other.

I had no chance at all, it seems. The Koala Kare staring at me from just inside the women’s room was just mocking me. My penance for being born with a Y chromosome is that I must clean my children’s dirty bums while crouched on a sticky floor next to a toilet that is almost certainly covered with every nasty germ from Ebola to Gingivitis. Don’t ask how that last one got there.

Fortunately, Jack is small enough to fit on my changing pad still. Joshua outgrew the changing pad long before outgrowing a need to wear diapers, so we did the Don’t-Touch-The-Floor-Disco on a regular basis up until just a few months ago (thank goodness we’re almost done potty training). I changed Jack quickly and got out of there without contracting a disease (I think), but not without adding a little more resentment fuel to my ire fire.

Stay-at-home dads are a minority. I know this. But Dads are not. If restaurant/shop/business owners think this way, then perhaps there are bigger societal problems. Frankly, it borders on sexism. If it’s sexist to say that only women can change diapers, isn’t it also sexist to say that men cannot?

I can attest that my boy does not care who changes his diaper, only that it gets changed. When it comes to Mazlow’s hierarchy, I suppose being covered in your own urine and or excrement probably takes precedent over damn near anything. I know if I found myself in that situation, my highest priority would be getting myself out of it, and I’d take help from almost anybody. It’s poop. It’s, like, gross and stuff.

Family changing rooms are nice, but they’re far from ubiquitous. Heck, they’re not even numerous enough to be called uncommon. They take a lot of room, and extra plumbing to boot, so I get that not every establishment can afford to install one, or even has room to put one. I’m not asking for that. I’m just asking to be treated the same as any other parent, Y chromosome be damned.

Another dad that I know rather provocatively makes a show out of changing his kid out on tables, chairs, benches, or pews (!) whenever the men’s room doesn’t have a changing station. He raises a stink with whatever manager-type is around, and even succeeded in getting a changing station added to a local restaurant’s men’s room not long ago. I’m not that confrontational, nor am I especially provocative. I’m just a dad who wants to take care of his kids, which most people would just call “a dad.” It’s hard enough being condescended to by those few moms who do talk to me at the playground or children’s museum, no less being outright ignored or given uncomfortable looks by the others. I can deal with that; what other people think doesn’t really matter to me. But when I have to change my son in a cramped stall that is only slightly cleaner than the inside of a garbage truck and for no other reason than that it’s assumed that my gender precludes me from wanting to or being able to care for my child, I get pretty miffed.

A few weeks ago, at the science museum, I was giving Jack his bottle while Joshua built an arch out of some blocks with some verbal guidance from me. A very kind woman with her child walked by and gave me The Look. Not a look of stern warning, the kind that my wife has mastered and can somehow throw to me in the middle of a conversation with another person, but a look that’s become far too familiar — the look of “You’re doing a great job, even though you’re a dad.” I can concede that, not being psychic, I cannot know for certain that this is the sentiment meant to be conveyed by The Look, but the frequency with which I receive it and the similarity of the circumstances under which it is given make its meaning conspicuous, if not transparent. Maybe it’s a look of solidarity, but I doubt it.

The other night at the gym, I plopped down in the sauna next to a gentleman who, because it was the gym and I’m me, was an Adonis-like man sculpted of iron and marble, sent to remind me that, especially when sweaty, I more closely resemble a wet orangutan that just climbed out of a river than a guy who just stepped off the cross-trainer. We talked briefly. I learned that he’d just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I thanked him for his service and asked about his kids (he mentioned missing his eldest’s birthday last year). The subject turned to my profession, as it were, as an at-home dad. Before I could even fully describe what I did, he interrupted with, “That’s so cool! I wish I could spend more time with my kids.”

This is the single most common response I hear from dads when I tell them what I do — a mixture of jealousy, guilt, and admiration. When I tell women (the ones who’ll talk to me, anyway), I never hear the other side — “That’s so cool! I wish my husband could spend more time with our kids.” I get a rotisserie of “Good for you,” “How fun!” (which I like to believe is sincere, but which probably means they’re picturing me laying on the couch watching SportsCenter while my children tear apart the house wearing sagging, hours-old diapers), and, my favorite, “Oh. What does your wife do?” 

Being a parent is hard. It never gets easier, it just gets different. Mothers, at-home and working, are not and cannot be thanked enough for what they do. For fathers, this is true, too, of course. But if he stays at home to do some parenting, he’s less of a man in some people’s eyes. My mother believes I’m wasting my time (a wonderful thought when it comes to parenting), my education, or something. She worries that if I take all this time off from work*, that it will be hard for me to find a career later on, as if that’s more important.

I’m not kidding myself. I know that I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to spend so much time with my children, and that my wife can support our yuppie lifestyle** by her income alone. And yeah, when the kids are off to school (we’re probably home schooling, so this might be a while), I’ll need to do something to fill my time, if only to get myself fully vested in Social Security (which may not even be solvent by the time I’m old enough to draw on it). But in the meantime, my kids are being raised by their parents, not by day care, and not by TV. I’m happy to give up a career to make that happen. I just wish I didn’t have to spend quite so much time changing diapers on the men’s room floor to make that happen, that’s all.

*Note that for her, parenting is time spent not working, rather than conceiving of working as time spent not parenting.

**We just bought a latte maker. We’re those people.

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