I met a Useless Dad the other day.
You can usually tell them by the look of bafflement on their faces but there are often other giveaway signs:
- They think three minutes is a long time for a baby to have been crying.
- They are convinced that their partner has magical baby-whispering powers and so looking after children is somehow easier for her.
- They try and read the paper at parent and toddler and have plans to work from home later.
- The baby strapped to their front is upside down and kicking them in the face.
I don't mean novice dads here, I mean perfectly capable men who see having a family as an infestation of little people that the wife deals with. It's not that they don't like children, it's that they're not entirely aware of them. The other week I was talking to a mum with two children at parent and toddler (not Scary Karen's one, the one with the great biscuits but hard seats). Her eldest was three years but she'd only left her husband in charge on his own for a couple of hours ever. "When I came back," she said, "the baby hadn't been changed or fed and my daughter had drawn all over herself with felt-tips. I'm never leaving him alone with them again."
"So you're going to do all the work while he sits around drinking beer?" I replied. "Are you sure that wasn't his plan all along?"
Realisation dawned. "I never thought of that," she said.
"Maybe you should give him a bit of training."
Her eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips as if contemplating the possibilities. "Maybe I should," she said in the manner of an evil genius holding a cute bunny and a pair of electrodes, and smiled to herself.
I slipped away to find a chocolate digestive, knowing my work there was done.
Anyway, I was at the same parent and toddler the other day and saw this guy looking uncomfortable and went over to chat with him. He was perched on the edge of his chair, holding a six-month-old as if the kid were about to explode. Every so often he peered nervously over at the drawing table; the rest of the time he looked around shiftily, trying not to make eye-contact with anyone breast-feeding.
"Hi, there," I said. "Have you been here before?"
"No. The wife told me to take the morning off work while she goes for a massage."
"Wow," I said, not quite sure where my sympathy lay.
"Yeah, that's the second time since Easter she's just gone off and dumped the kids on me."
"Wow..." I repeated, suspecting my sympathy had sloped off to the gym for a good rub down. "That's, like, nearly once a week."
"I know. She never did this before. Then she was talking to this guy she met somewhere and decided I should 'take more of an active role'. She said the guy looks after his kids all the time, so I should be able to manage it now and then. Calls himself a homedad or something. Can you imagine?"
"I'll keep an eye out for him," I said. The baby was starting to look familiar and I noticed that a three-year-old girl at the drawing table was busy on a kaleidoscope of felt-tip butterflies that already stretched most of the way up her arm.
"Do you know how to stop this baby crying?" said Useless Dad. "He's been doing it for five minutes and I just can't get him to be quiet. He's never like this for Deborah. It's probably the smell. Something smells terrible in here."
I nodded. "Yeah, kind of like an unchanged nappy."
I heard the refreshments being set out and I made to slip away but then I noticed the pleading look on the baby's face. It was the look of a small child who has been screaming to no avail for awhile and is in desperate need of a translator (or a t-shirt with the slogan 'I'm sitting in poo, you idiot!').
I sat back down. "You might want to check your son," I said to Useless Dad.
"His nappy." The man looked blank. "You know, you might want to check it."
"Oh! Right..." He investigated with slightly less care than was wise and then swore. "Where did that come from?" I stayed quiet, hoping it was a rhetorical question, and he continued. "It was only an hour ago that Deborah changed him. What am I going to do now?"
Unfortunately this appeared not to be a rhetorical question. I glanced over to check on Marie. She was dressed up as Bob the Builder and was happily playing with a stuffed toy of Postman Pat, trying hard to saw him in half. I sighed. I could have done with being called away to an emergency. "Do you want me to talk you through it?" I said reluctantly.
And I really had to. He opened the changing bag like he had no idea what was inside and things just went downhill after that. He got there eventually but I had to resist the urge to take over on several occasions.
"I take it you've changed a few nappies then," said Useless Dad when we were done.
"One or two," I said and decided to come clean. "My wife goes out to work and I stay home and look after the kids."
"Oh, really?" he said, not quite getting it. "I'd rather have a rest at the weekend than babysit. Deborah's thinking of doing something a few hours a week but I'm trying to talk her out of it. It's not like we need the money and, honestly, she's much better with the kids than I am. Doesn't really seem worth it."
"No, my wife works full-time," I said but it was like he couldn't hear me and then he had to rush home. He had some work he wanted to get done. He packed up his stuff and strapped on his baby-carrier.
"That's upside down," I said.
"I know," he said nasally, his son's foot wedged up his right nostril. Then he grabbed Butterfly Girl and dragged her out the door. I shook my head and made my way towards the refreshments.
Marie was still putting her tools to good use as I went past. "I hammer Postman Pat to table," she said.
"Good girl," I replied and hurried to get my tea before the mugs ran out.
The whole experience was quite an eye-opener. Mums give me a huge amount of credit for being a stay at home dad but I only do as much as they do; less, if they're dealing with partners anything like Useless Dad. Sarah is more than willing to help look after the kids when she's not at work and it sounds like your Liz is the same. They may not know exactly where the pastry-cutters are kept or which day the bins go out but they can be trusted to look after the kids for whole days at a time. They don't grudge it either.
We should probably appreciate them more. I'll keep reminding you, if you keep reminding me. Deal?
Yours in a woman's world,