My first child was born last year, and I spent a fair amount of my four weeks of paternity leave with the boy strapped to my chest in a Baby Bjorn, walking the streets of my Washington, DC, neighborhood. (I'm a restless person who doesn't like to sit around inside my house, and Jose tended to cry when he's not moving.)
Walking around with Jose during the day was an interesting and informative experience. All of parenthood is, of course. But while most parenting experiences teach you things about yourself and about babies, the Roaming Strap-On Baby Experience mostly teaches you about the adult world and how it sees men, babies, and city life in general. Here's a bit of what I learned.
1) Men with babies are nonthreatening and approachable
This is the biggest one by far. People are drastically more likely to talk to me with Jose strapped to my chest than under normal circumstances. Some of that is because he is adorable and people like cute babies.
But it's not all talk about the baby. People stop and ask me for directions more. Someone asked me if I had the time, a question I haven't heard since the dawn of the smartphone era. I got asked if I had a recommendation for a brand of olive oil. People are just straight-up more willing to talk to me with the baby.
It's not exactly a deep puzzle. It's a good bet that a man with a baby is familiar with the neighborhood and not a violent sociopath. And women are more likely to be friendly to a man when they are confident that friendliness won't be taken as an invitation for sexual advances. But even though it's not mysterious, it is a little strange to experience.
2) Dads get graded on a curve
I was prepared to receive over-the-top praise from random strangers that I am a "good dad," based on doing totally normal parenting things: this is a fatherhood cliché by now.
But on some level I thought maybe it wouldn't actually happen. I wasn't going to the mall in some flyover country suburb, after all. Surely in the progressive, forward-thinking bastion of Logan Circle, people would think that a man taking adequate care of a baby was no more remarkable than a woman doing the same. This is not the case. I am reliably informed by several people that I am a great dad based, essentially, on my ability to take possession of an infant for several hours and not kill him.
Well, the truth is I do feel pretty great about it. But my wife does not report any similar praise, and she doesn't kill the baby either. She even feeds him with milk created by her own body!
One possible explanation here is that the praise is strategic. It's not so much the soft bigotry of low expectations as a deliberate effort to offer positive reenforcement. Maybe it even works? It's nice to hear people saying nice things about you.
3) Except when people assume dads are incompetent
I was a little less prepared for the opposite reaction from a smaller number of strangers — an unwarranted assumption that I was some kind of incompetent, monstrous oaf who hadn't even slightly considered what I was doing with the baby.
No, dry cleaning lady, I'm not babysitting this morning, I'm parenting.
And yes, I know it's hot out. But the baby has a blanket draped over his head because it's sunny and the pediatrician said he's too young for sunscreen. What's more, being loosely covered with breathable cloth is cooler on a hot sunny day than bare skin. That's why Bedouins wear robes. I have thought this through, I promise! At the coffee shop around the corner they think I'm a great dad!
4) Mom is still taking care of the kids
It's pretty annoying that the local parenting listserv is called Moms in Logan Circle, and that Amazon's discount diaper program is called Amazon Mom. Dads care about used stroller sales and cheap diapers, too!
But the basic stereotype that the mom is taking care of the kids is more or less accurate.
I saw more dads with kids during a single week on vacation in Stockholm four years ago than I did on four weeks' worth of weekdays walking around my neighborhood in DC. By contrast, on weekday afternoons the neighborhood is crawling with moms. Sometimes solo moms multitasking childcare and grocery shopping. Sometimes packs of moms, cruising the landscape with massive quantities of equipment and tank-like multi-kid strollers.
The picture changes radically on the weekend. In the early morning especially, dads roam the land with kids in tow.
Gender norms are changing, and parents are spending more time with their kids. But the full-time stay-at-home parents that a man out on leave is likely to see on a random weekday are still overwhelmingly women. Employer leave policies (when they exist) are generally more generous to new moms than to new dads. And dads are less likely to take discretionary time off to care for children.
Indeed, given the large class gap in marriage rates, it's likely that traditional stay-at-home moms are more likely to be found in feminist-laden yuppie neighborhoods like mine than in more typical swaths of America.
5) Talking to people is nice
Your mileage may differ on this one. Introverts, in particular, would probably hate walking around with a baby. But personally, I turned out to really enjoy lots of low-pressure chitchat with strangers.
It's quite pleasant, and, evidently, the people doing the chitchatting enjoyed it too.
I've lived in big cities my whole life, and I like the urban environment a lot. But I also turn out to enjoy the small-town vibe of conversation with baristas, strangers at the grocery store, and people who for whatever reason don't carry a time-telling device around with them.
They say it takes a village to raise a child — but a child also has a somewhat miraculous way of turning a city into a village.