"When you disparage, demean, trivialize, mock, or patronize the parenting of fathers, whether from afar or in the very act of their parenting, you are resuscitating the stilling world of damaged gender role stereotyping that ought to vanish into history. Ma’am, respect male parents as parents, refrain from the cheap humour made available by our cultural immersion in sitcom fatherhood, or in exchange you must not only accept the diminished role you will see fathers take in the lives of their children, with all of the attendant costs associated with that absence, but you must also remain silent in the face of those workplace jokes about your "emotional" nature. Because that is the world you are endorsing. Is it worth it? Is it right?"
A lot of the world can be contained in, and expressed by, an inflection.
Erin climbed the jungle gym reserved for 5-12 year olds with her usual derring-do, and I followed close behind. She charged past the two emaciated adult forms at the top on her way to the 10-foot slide. If they weren’t at a park at the top of a jungle gym I might have taken them for a starving homeless couple. But given our geography, the time of day, and the presence of three miniature versions of themselves I hastily concluded that they were yippies (hippies who owe their yuppie income to the organic food/alt. lifestyle pop culture movement rooted in the Bay Area).
Erin crouched and moved her legs into position to begin her ride down to her smiling mother’s open, encouraging arms. A small ridge at the top of the slide impeded a smooth transition from a crouching position to a seated one, and Erin started moving forward with her feet slightly beneath her as her shoes caught this ridge. Her awkward pose quickly turned into a more elegant but less slide-appropriate kneeling position, which in turn transformed into a full belly-flop as she gained momentum traveling down the ten feet to the bottom. Her mother caught her in case her inertia would have carried her face-first off the end of the slide onto the wood chips carpeting the ground.
Unnerved by her unanticipated Olympic Skeleton qualifier and poked in the face a little while being rescued at high speed Erin expressed her discontent with some pathetic wails as her mother consoled her.
And from the yippie mom standing next to me at the top of the jungle gym came a startling "Da-ad." It was a mixture of disapproval and humour, both an assignment of blame and an attempt to soften the blow with a joke. I was supposed to be in on the "da-ad", and recognize my role as the bumbling, unaware male who was incautious and slightly incompetent; I was supposed to be an enlightened token of a ridiculous stereotype: a sitcom dad who was aware of the nature of the sitcom and who was invested in the success of the show.
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t seen Erin catch her foot on the top of the slide in time to stop her from tumbling. I was embarrassed as a parent. But it wasn’t until I heard "Da-ad" that I realized I was supposed to be embarrassed because I was a father. That is, it wasn’t the fact that Erin had tumbled and I hadn’t caught her that was of concern; nor was it the fact that as a parent I had given her the headway to take on her own challenges; it was the fact that I was a father and, per stereotype, the expectations for me were lower and I had met them. And having met them I could be boxed up and delivered back to my wife, her surrogate-in-momhood at the top of the slide having done her part.
I am more embarrassed at my response than I was at Erin’s fall. I slipped all-too-easily into the role of a sitcom dad. Instead of letting myself show any distress at all that my daughter had just gone face first down a slide and might not feel that great about it I let the "Da-ad" admonition corral my genuine feelings and I offered up a sterilized model to the world. Or I let it goad me into being unfeeling so that it wouldn’t look like I cared what the yippie had to say, so that I wouldn’t let her win. I’m not sure which is the truth. But I let Emily do the comforting while I grinned a defeated rictus grin from the top of the slide and asked Erin if she wanted to go again while she sobbed on her mother’s shoulder.
I seethed. I seethed at this woman’s ignorant inflection. I seethed at my own response. I seethed at the playground equipment designer who had included a tripping ridge at the top of the slide. I seethed out of irrational embarrassment and out of righteous indignation. And while I seethed I wrote a speech in my head.
I never did deliver it. I decided that I was reading a lot into an inflection and that maybe with the benefit of the doubt "Da-ad" might have simply been the interjection of a friendly do-gooder park parent; maybe she would have offered an equally disapproving but humourous "Mo-om" if Emily had been the one at the top of the stairs. And while this might mean that she deserved some kind of reply I only had the one speech written. So I shelved it.
And Erin climbed the stairs and slid down the slide for 5-12 year olds over and over again while the yippie kids played around her.