Stories

'The everyday sexism I face as a stay-at-home dad'

Matthew and his daughter on the beach

When a gay Londoner and his partner had a child they knew they were likely to experience homophobia. What they were not ready for was sexism. But, as Matthew Jenkin explains here, when he goes out in public with his daughter it's an everyday occurrence.

It was a gloriously sunny day - one of those mini-heatwaves in April that fills you with false hope for the summer. Feeling optimistic, I decided to take my six-month-old daughter, Carla, to a sensory class for babies a few tube stops away in Clapham.

All the parents I knew raved about how their babies were captivated by the creative genius of it all and, most importantly, soothed to sleep by the gentle music and twinkly lights. Carla, however, was not so impressed.

The moment we walked through the door, she exploded. It was a full-blown meltdown. She screamed blue murder and tears streamed down her face, mixing with a river of mucus bubbling from her perfect button nose.

I tried to keep calm and carry on, hoping Carla would settle once the class began. I joined the circle of mums with their serenely happy infants for the opening baby massage and song section, but my girl only grew more distressed. Halfway through You are my sunshine, Carla's hysterics crescendoed and then it happened. I was a dad in a sea of mums struggling to soothe his child, so the group decided to come to the rescue. Instead of support, I was offered pity and condescension.

"Have you thought about changing her nappy?" suggested one mother. "Do you think she's hungry?"

And worst of all: "Perhaps I should hold the baby for you?"

I was so focused on caring for my daughter that I wasn't quick enough to snipe back that this isn't my first time looking after a baby. I am a stay-at-home dad and have been wiping her bottom and drying her tears since she was born. I certainly didn't need a childcare 101 from a circle of mothers I'd never met. I left the class and immediately broke down in tears.

It's hard to imagine a woman in the same situation being offered an idiot's guide to parenting or being asked to hand over her child to a total stranger. But I've faced this kind of everyday sexism time and time again.

I was humiliated by a woman who, having seen me bottle-feeding Carla in public, physically showed me how to do it "properly" and chastised me for wearing clothes that might irritate the baby's delicate skin. Then there was the time I was scolded by another stranger for supposedly standing too close to the kerb with the buggy. A car might swerve up on to the pavement and kill the baby, apparently.

The funny thing is, sexism was the last thing I was expecting when I became a daddy. It was homophobia.

Carla was born in the US to a surrogate mother - the culmination of a hugely emotional journey. We were overjoyed to be in the delivery room for the birth, to cut the cord and enjoy the all important skin-to-skin contact. We were very proud parents.

When we returned to the UK, we were expecting a mixed reaction to the news. Same-sex parenting is, of course, still relatively uncommon and surrogacy as a means of conceiving remains controversial.

When Tom Daley and his husband, Dustin Lance Black, announced they were expecting a child through surrogacy they were subjected to a torrent of homophobia. So we expected questions to be asked, eyebrows raised and even abuse.

Health visitors have shown their disapproval on occasion by greeting the news of Carla's two fathers with a sharp intake of breath, a shocked "Oh!" and then an awkward silence. I was left feeling uncomfortable and more reluctant to visit the baby clinic, despite the constant insecurity all new parents feel during that crucial first year.

The lack of specific gender roles is confusing for some. Mothers I've met have asked if I am somehow the "mummy" - assuming my role as the primary carer conforms to the traditional gender stereotype of a mother. I am "daddy" and my husband is "papa" - we haven't set any ground rules other than to love and care for our daughter come what may.

Our most shocking experience was during lunch at a restaurant. We had just sat down at the table when suddenly Carla woke abruptly from her nap, crying. We were trying our best to soothe her when the waitress approached.

"Two men cannot look after a baby. Next time bring a woman," she scolded us.

I was quick to correct her, but we left in a hurry, angry and embarrassed. My initial reaction to the incident was that this was homophobia, but the comment was equally sexist. As I discovered, the everyday sexism of the parenting world was far more demoralising and commonplace than anti-gay sentiment.

I found the first few months with a newborn not only exhausting but also very lonely. Carla had severe reflux meaning she vomited most of her milk all over both of us after every feed. It took a lot of courage to take her outside the safe confines of the home, and finding a playgroup where I felt welcome was a challenge.

The names of many activities suitable for infants are usually targeted at mothers only, when in reality a father could easily join in if he wished. "Mum and yoga", "Mum and baby salsa", "Mum and me ballet", "Mum and baby crawler" - the list goes on. Groups for fathers were scheduled for the weekend only.

It was isolating and I felt unnecessarily excluded from social groups that I might have benefited from. When I did find a wonderful music class to join, I was dismayed to find even children's songs are misandrous. Take the song Wheels on the Bus - while the gentle, caring mummies on the bus go "Shhhhh", the callous daddies go "What's that noise?"

The precious few other stay-at-home fathers I have met at playgroups tell me similar stories of feeling alienated in a mum-orientated baby culture.

I am not for one minute claiming men are somehow the great oppressed. In many ways it is the patriarchal society that we have created coming back to bite us.

Changes to employment law which allow parents to share parental leave are enabling more men to enjoy those joyous (and tough) first few months bonding with their child. But we need to recognise that the culture surrounding parenting also needs to change to encourage more fathers to take the plunge - gay or straight.

A selection of your comments:

What particularly grates with me is the apparently acceptable "dad's a bit useless" theme especially in advertising. If you keep your eyes open, you can see it quite a lot. It's hard to imagine mum needing a man to sort her problem out scenario being readily accepted. Kevin

My daughter is 16 weeks old. Working from home everyday gave me the flexibility to attend all doctors and midwife appointments and all NHS-run pre-birth groups. I found it very frustrating. Most people we saw would not acknowledge I was there and if I asked a question they either ignored me completely or refused to look at me and answered it to my partner. There were the odd few people who were just amazing, but the majority made me feel worthless. The baby groups we attended together were mum this, mum that, mum group, mum classes, mum, mum, mum, mum... mum. On a number of occasions I pulled up the use of their word "mum "and said they should be using "parent" instead. One group even said the dad isn't important in the first few months of the baby's life. This is what an NHS-recommended course is passing on to mothers!!! The whole "dad is 2nd class" started from the second my partner got pregnant. Steve, Leeds

Don't take it personally. Being told how to look after your own child by complete strangers is a completely normal occurrence for mums too. Irritating, isn't it? Mikki, Worcester

The mummy exercise classes are usually for women who have gone through an incredible physical process and need specific and tailored exercise advice to prevent long-term damage. Most of these women have built up so much courage to get out and do this and the last thing they need is a man - no matter how disinterested in women he is - being there. Also, all nursery rhymes are stupid... "Three blind mice" anyone? Mary, Basingstoke

As a single dad I get very similar comments. I was asked at a job centre interview, "Why can't mum look after him so you can work?" I replied, "Would you ask that of a single mum?" They couldn't answer! Why can't people take the sex of the person out of the equation. A parent is a parent, male or female. Due to this I run toddler groups at my local church and the first thing I did when I took over was to take the words "mother and" out of the title. We have mums, dads, grandmas, granddads all bringing their little ones to play without worry. Andrew Walker, Poole

I know I'm not a dad but I am a mum and wanted to comment on this. I don't think it's sexism. It's parent-shaming. It happens to women as well, all the time! I've had the comment about my clothes being too "rough" for my child to be held against. I've also had how I shouldn't wear perfume as it's not good for the baby. The other day at the park my daughter fell over and started to cry. I couldn't get up quickly because the chair I was sitting in was difficult to get out of. So a dad picked up my child and said, "There there. I'll look after you since your mum isn't." I was shocked! I admit I was a little pleased that she screamed more when he picked her up and as soon as I managed to get to her and take her she stopped crying instantly. Maria Elmore, Rotherham

As a dad, who regularly looked after his infant sons (they are now 15 and 17), this rings so true. My most embarrassing moment came when I went to change my baby son's nappy at a local country house and found the only changing station was in the ladies' loo. The staff offered to move the mat on to the floor in the disabled loo. I kept calm - though I was shaking inside - and insisted on waiting until the ladies' loo was free. This worked and the women who came in while I was changing my son were very understanding. I went back soon after and they had a changing station in the disabled loo - so, a victory of sorts! Ian Williamson

A slightly different experience of sexism as a dad and male. I have raised three children: a son, a daughter and a stepson. Five years ago, I wanted to work part time (four-day week) to look after my 10-year-old daughter. I was refused for no other reason than being male. Note, I work in IT as a programmer for a very large company. The six ladies in our team of 12 were allowed to work part time to "look after their children" where the children were typically 15 years of age or older, some in university! Arnold McDonald

I am a dad of a two-year-old girl and I don't feel this is sexism. People on the street offer unwanted opinions and advice to me, to my wife to everyone in parent groups that I've spoken to. It's not because you are a man, it's because that's what old people on the street and the supermarket like to do! Matt B

My mother-in-law held on to my screaming son rather than giving him to me because he "needed his mom". He actually needed a sleep. Ironically I was better at getting him to sleep than his mom so as soon as his mom returned, she gave him straight to me to put him back to sleep. It isn't just dads that suffer. My wife feels guilty about letting me look after my son - because other people expect her to do it. Colin

It's the subtle uses of language that bothers me as a dad. Now if someone asks if I'm "babysitting" I play dumb and say, "No, they're mine..." Chris, London

I'm a father currently on three months' shared parental leave while my wife has returned to work. It's a wonderful experience and I've been going along to as many different classes as I can with my son. However, I was very disappointed when I was told I could not attend the local baby massage class because I was a man. Apparently my presence would have made the women too uncomfortable and so the classes were for mums and babies only. Iain Gorman, Selkirk

I was shopping with my son, a recent dad. We carried a twin each. Got the diapers etc and some fresh fruit, and a case of rice milk (for me). At the till the woman told us firmly that rice milk wasn't for babies and where was the sensible mother? Mike, my son, had activated his dictaphone and got all this on tape. So we filed a complaint. We got an apology of sorts, but the manager still told us that we should learn not to give rice milk to babies. I'm a biochemist, Mike is a surgeon, but we get told how to feed babies. Critchard, Exeter

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