Dear Dave

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Stereotype confusion

Dear Dave,

I think our correspondence has affected me.

After years of sitting around at parent and toddler listening to mums share about their childbirth experiences, clueless partners and babies with sharp teeth, I'd got used to being the only man in the room. I'd learnt to blend. I knew when to interject with heartfelt opinions on child-wrangling and when to keep quiet and hide behind my cup of tea. This allowed me to fit in, even though I stood out. I was an honorary mum. I hadn't quite reached the stage of getting confused and referring to Sarah as 'my husband', but it was close.

Our letters have changed my outlook, however. It's been a relief to discuss computer games, gadgets, children and everything else from a properly male perspective; to talk about being a man in this woman's world with someone who understands.

Unfortunately, I've got a little too used to it.

Now the kids are older and I'm not at parent and toddler three times a week, I'm no longer constantly reminded that we're pretty much the only two housedads out there. People ask me what my job is, I tell them I look after my three kids and then I'm surprised when they do a double-take and start acting like they've chanced upon some bizarre combination of madman, Jedi and dodo. Fear and awe compete for control of their faces before being overcome by mild bewilderment. A housedad? Really?

You'd imagine I'd be used to this response but, after a year and a half of these letters, I've got to the point of thinking that housedads are commonplace.

I was reading a newspaper article about childcare last week and was totally thrown at the end of the second paragraph when the writer started talking about her husband. I'd totally assumed the piece had been written by a man. When I realised my mistake, I was momentarily astonished.

Honestly, who leaves a woman in charge of children? What next? Male doctors? It's just not right...

Upon returning to reality, I began to wonder in what other ways I've become confused.

The same day, I got sent some publicity material about a game called Baby Life that's coming out on the DS for Christmas. Players get to create their own baby and then help it grow up from 9 to 15 months, encouraging her/him to speak, move and behave.

My initial reaction, having had to help three children grow from 9 to 15 months in real life, was to experience nasty flashbacks to sleep deprivation and being covered in porridge. Why would anyone go through that for fun? Once the trauma had passed, though, I realised that the DS doesn't have smell-o-vision (or, indeed, splat-o-vision) and can be switched off at night. Hopefully this means the game gives the opportunity to feed a child unhealthy food, disrupt their sleep patterns and teach them bad habits without having to live through the consequences. (You know, like being a grandparent.) Even if not, it might be fun to experience the smiles and giggles without the nappies.

On consideration, I thought Marie might actually quite enjoy the game in a year or two...

Then I stopped the thought. Why had I assumed the boys wouldn't be interested? They're much more into computer games than Marie and they've already had practice nurturing animated pets - they spent days earning enough rings in some Sonic game in order to buy a little bird-creature its own TV. They didn't even mind too much when the bird-creature almost totally ignored the TV. They're natural parents.

Despite being a housedad myself, I'd jumped to the conclusion that a game about babies is for girls. Maybe this was because the publishers are aiming it at girls. Maybe it was because (despite my best efforts) my little girl is such a little girl, complete with an entirely pink wardrobe, nail varnish, sparkling jewellery, a love of art-and-craft and an obsession with princesses. Maybe it was simply plain old gender stereotyping.

I don't know. It did make me stop to consider how all three of my children might experience the game, though:

Fraser would teach the baby tricks but eventually become fed up with the lack of challenges and complain that there wasn't a Boss Baby to fight. Lewis, meanwhile, could become quite attached to his virtual offspring. He'd call her Splungewobble, care for her incessantly and insist I set a place for her at the kitchen table.

All in all, it's Marie who would play the game in the scariest way. She'd make a big fuss of understanding her baby's needs but then conduct experiments on him. ('He's hungry. Isn't he cute? I'll turn him upside down and put the porridge in his nappy. That will teach him to say please.')

Worryingly, she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

I'm not going to try and work out how my kids would react to the accompanying Horse Life game. Between my stereotype confusion and their unwillingness to be pigeon-holed, there's little chance of guesswork and reality coinciding. I suppose I'll just have to put my preconceptions behind me and see what happens...

You never know, when the kids are older, things may have moved on to the point where men and women are able to fit in, whatever career or role they choose. Housedads will become commonplace and this whole topic will be academic.

Er... Probably best not to count on that, however.

We should let the kids know that society's expectations of them may differ from what they've experienced in our role-reversed households. Good luck explaining to Sam that not all men get to send a woman out to work while they stay home and play with LEGO.

If my boys are anything to go by, it may be a while before the poor little guy believes you.

Yours in a woman's world (still),



MD said...

I can relate to this, in a different way. In my country women don't do programming or math or sciences. Women wear lots of makeup and work as secretaries, teachers or accountants. I never fit that stereotype, but when I lived with it all the time, I fit in a lot better. Now I have lived abroad for a while. There is stereotyping here, too, but there is much less of it. So when I come back it's a lot harder to "fit in" - I lost my both the ability and the will to deal with annoying comments and assumptions. I don't wish to change back to my old self, but sometimes I wish I retained some of that "water off the duck's back" attitude.

DadsDinner said...

Yep, sometimes it's easier to fit in when you absolutely know you're not going to fit in - there's nothing to lose from just being yourself and brazening it out.

Unexpectedly not fitting in results in much more mental effort from having to throw up shields in a hurry.