the invisible dad

Why does the world ignore fathers?

When my son, Dylan, was a few weeks old, I took him to the supermarket in one of those snuggle-vests. As I loaded the shopping cart, a matronly woman approached, clasping her hands together just below her chin. "Oh, my," she said in a cutesy tone. "Aren't you the bravest young man, out in the world all by yourself ..." I stifled a proud smile, anticipating the compliments and attention about to be showered on my progeny. She went on: "... with your little baby?"

Brave? What was she thinking — that I might have to slay a dragon in the produce aisle or something? "Well, um, I'm ready for any emergencies," I ad-libbed, patting the spare diaper in my jeans pocket. Then I backed away, leaving her standing there with a worried look on her face.

Actually, she might have been onto something: It does take a certain amount of courage for a dad to be actively involved in raising his baby. See, that little scenario has repeatedly played itself out in one way or another since before Dylan was even born, when the delivery-room staff tried — for no good reason — to banish me to the "daddy chair" off in the corner. Later, at the pediatrician's office, the nurse directed all of her questions at my wife, even though I was holding the baby at the time. When I asked the nurse a question, she directed her answer at "mom."

I've heard variations of the same story from other involved dads — the sarcastic comments one guy endured at work when he left early to pick up his daughter from day care, the raised eyebrows another one got while clothes-shopping alone with his son. It's in response to that kind of attitude that I offer the following, a Bill of Rights for Involved Dads.

The right to be recognized as equal partners. We're not asking for special praise just because we change a diaper. But we'd really appreciate it if pediatricians' office staffs, day-care providers, store clerks and know-it-all relatives didn't automatically assume we're uninterested in — or unaware of — the details of our babies' lives.

The right to a little flexibility. Most employers these days have come to terms with the fact that mothers sometimes have to change their work schedules to accommodate their children's needs. In this age of supposed gender equity in the workplace, why shouldn't a father be entitled to the same consideration?

The right to be physically affectionate. If a dad wants to cuddle, kiss or even sing to his child in public, he should feel free to do so without having to endure the sideways glances and disapproving clucks of strangers.

The right not to be called "Mr. Mom." We're not trying to replace our children's mothers. After all, there's a very special bond between a mother and her baby, and no loving father would ever try to get in the way of that. But that doesn't mean we're incapable of bonding with our children just as deeply.

Dylan and I still go to the supermarket together. But we don't use the snuggle-vest anymore — he's walking. With his fingers clenched tightly around my thumbs, he stomps cartoonishly up and down the aisles — precarious soup-can displays and lurking dragons be damned.

Make that two brave young men.

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