‘Parking for Mothers with Children Only.’ My oldest daughter was an infant, probably two months old, when I first noticed the sign in the Target parking lot. I’d stayed home with her since she was born and my wife and I planned for it to be our permanent arrangement. When we decided I’d stay home, I was excited. Slightly terrified, mildly apprehensive, but mostly excited. And I didn’t feel any concern with ‘what people would think.’ Well, that’s not entirely true. I was a little worried that people might think my staying home wasn’t a choice, but rather because I couldn’t get a job. Or I was lazy (true, but not the reason!). Or I’d been fired for embezzlement or some similar dopey white-collar crime. But I didn’t view it as emasculating. Even at that stage in my new career, I knew enough stay at home mothers to know that this wasn’t a job for the weak – emotionally or physically. It took caring and compassion and love, of course. But it also took courage and toughness and stamina in spades. So I never felt like less of man for staying at home. Until I saw that sign. Or, rather, until the day I parked in front of that sign.
I certainly didn’t park there the first time I noticed it. I chalked it up as a mildly amusing anecdote I could tell my wife that night and parked elsewhere. I passed it up the next few trips, too. But one day, I paused. My darling daughter was screaming in the back seat (unlike 98% of human infants, my little angel hated riding in the car.) And I’d made several stops already on this outing and my right arm was getting sore from lugging my tiny girl in the world’s largest, least-ergonomic carrying device ever devised. And I knew that I was going to be leaving with an 847-pack of diapers. So I parked in Mothers Only.
If I’m being honest, my first concern upon sliding out of my mini-van was that I was going to be accosted by an irate mom carrying her child. While virtually all of the lady stay-at-homers I’d met in the neighborhood and the grocery store and the diaper aisle were sources of great advice and encouragement, I’d encountered a few (‘No socks, Dad?’ as I finished unwrapping my daughter from her fuzzy, wool car seat cover that kept her baking like a foil-wrapped potato) more than happy to share their thoughts with the ‘Dad’ whose wife was obviously sick or out-of-town or stuck under a bookshelf. Thankfully, there was no confrontation. Just a guy, happy to only have to lug his 10 pound daughter and her 87 pound car seat a little shorter distance. But all the while I wandered the aisles, there was something nagging me about it.
That screaming, sock-less infant is 9 now. And in the ensuing years I’ve encountered a dozen more ‘Mothers Only’ signs. ‘Mommy and me’ music classes. Mothers’ Coffees after pre-school drop-off. Signing up with “Amazon Mom” for cheaper diapers, complete with “Hi Amazon Mom!” emails. The latest occurred last week, when a friend expecting her first child announced on Facebook that she was looking for pediatrician recommendations from area ‘moms.’ Reading that post immediately took me back to that day in the Target parking lot. Should I comment with the name of our great doctor? OBVIOUSLY, I told myself, she would welcome my recommendation. CLEARLY, this wasn’t some conscious exclusionary phrasing, rather a quick post by an expecting mother looking for some advice. But I didn’t respond. In fact, I still haven’t. (And in a fantastic twist of irony, I just noticed, literally as I typed this paragraph, that she just thanked all “the moms and dads” for their suggestions.)
So why didn’t I respond? My gut reaction, was: ‘Why, I’m standing up for us guys, of course! I’m fighting for my fellow stay-at-home dads against the onslaught of mommy-centric semantics! Ignore one of us, you ignore all of us! Attica! Attica! Attica!” It didn’t take me too long to realize that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. (And I’ve talked with 3 year olds.)
Why would I not immediately offer help to a friend looking for someone to care for her soon-to-be newborn? I wasn’t making some silent protest against ignoring the contributions of us stay at home dads. I was being a dope. My ego overrode my better judgment. It was the same with the parking and the music classes and the coffees. And it wasn’t because I didn’t think moms were awesome (why some of my best friends are moms!). It was because my ego felt bruised by responding to something labeled for moms. Now, I realize that on the first-world scale of problems, “but it says it’s for moms!” ranks somewhere below “why are there so many carrots in this salad?” But this isn’t really about that. It’s about not allowing your ego to stop you from helping a neighbor, a loved one, or a friend. And that doesn’t go for fathers only or mother only. But for all of us.