Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I Do Not Feel Like a Natural Woman

Mostly, the broader sociological implications of reversing traditional gender roles, the "should or shouldn't" aspects, don't interest me much. We're doing it. So are lots of other couples. And it's fine.

But what does pique my interest, particularly as someone who has always enjoyed people-watching, are the "how" aspects. Do men and women do it differently? Is it because of inherent biological differences, or individual personality differences?

I never thought I'd become a regular at the mall, but Thumper and I love the indoor playground there. It has a spongy rubber floor instead of gravel, which makes it infinitely more crawler-friendly. Yesterday, a holiday, there was a much higher percentage of men at the playground, presumably because they had the day off from work. As in all things, it's mostly meaningless to make broad generalizations because every individual case is shaped by so many more factors than just gender. But still, it does seem to be true that men generally do the playground differently than women.

Women are more comfortable, more natural. When Thumper crawled into the center of four mothers deep in conversation, the mother on whose knee he chose to pull up reached down and rubbed his back without even glancing down at him. When he fell, she picked him back up onto his feet, again with barely a downward glance or a pause in the conversation. She was clearly used to mothering in a group situation. It didn't matter whose kid he was; he was just a kid.

I've noticed this group mothering before, particularly at niece and nephew birthday parties, when the moms operate like a well-drilled unit. And they are well-drilled, because they've been doing it, and doing it together, for years. There doesn't seem to be any verbalization of labor assignments, like "I'll get the cake, you watch the kids, you clean up the piƱata..." They just do it, and seamlessly. Someone even writes down what gifts were given and by whom so that thank you cards can be sent. It's a machine, a mommy machine, and when the machine revs up, it's best just to stay out of the way.

But the men are different. At least, I think so. I haven't really been to enough SAHD playdates to see how much of a machine they are. But at the mall, the moms wade into the fray, enforcing sharing and turn-taking. The dads, grateful for the comfortable padded benches that surround the play area, linger around the periphery. They bellow no's at their children from across the playground, with cell phones pressed to their ears. I try to stay out of the middle, because I don't want to step on any children, but I also stay close to Thumper. I stay on the outside, but I circle, and I jump in when he yanks someone's hair or causes a backup at the slide when he decides the bottom is a perfect place to hang out.

A few weeks ago, a boy of about three or four tapped me on the shoulder. I turned, and he said, "Hey. What are you doing?" I told him I was watching my son. He stared at me for a few seconds, broke out in a huge grin, and ran away, yelling, "Mommy! Mommy! Look! It's a daddy! It's a daddy!" I periodically looked up to find him staring at me with that big grin. Then he'd run away again. At times like that, I feel like an anomaly, but I think to some degree, I make myself the anomaly by my self-consciousness. I talk to kids, but only if they talk to me first. I'll smile and wave if they stare at me (as often happens). But I never, never touch them. When they tumble off the equipment, I do not pick them up.

One little boy, around 18 months, confounded me. He'd run over to me, lay his head on my lap, and grin up at me. Then run off. Then come back. It made me very uncomfortable, and I didn't know what to do. After the third time, his mother said, "He has an obsession with facial hair. I don't know why. His dad doesn't have any." She didn't seem concerned. But if I'd laid my hand on his head or back, would she have leaped up?

So am I uncomfortable because I'm just a self-concious and socially handicapped dork? Do other men impose the same distance on themselves? Would women react negatively if I picked up a fallen child or casually touched the hair or rubbed the back of a passing cutie pie, or is that just what parents, not just mothers, do at a playground? Does the fact that I'm 6'3" and 265 lbs. have anything to do with it? Are women so comfortable because experience has taught them that cooperative action is acceptable or because it never occurs to them, the thought never enters their mind, that the word "pedophile" will be leaping into the minds of the mothers around them?


Jennie said...

I can tell you that whenever I smile or coo at a baby in the grocery store, women look at me like I'm going to steal their baby. But they all let my boyfriend talk to the kid. On the other hand, I totally think it's a good idea not to touch the kids. Maybe squat down and talk to them or let them finger-comb your beard? Good idea, though, letting them make the moves.

POPS said...

Having existed around the world of Child Protective Services / Social Workers and hearing often about physical and sexual abuse, I have a great fear of being accused or aressted if I touch a child that is not directly connected to me.
Maybe oe manner.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I'll have to send the Saint over for the been-a-father-of-3-for-many-years perspective.

As for me - yes, I think there is some weird mommy club where we do all watch out for each others' kids, and do it naturally. At least, all the moms I know do. I LOVED your description of the mom at the playground who helped Thumper without breaking conversation, because I've done that tons of times. Pushed kids on swings. Handed kids back dropped nuks. Absent-mindedly stroked heads of children I haven't birthed.

I know that Rich gets accosted most mornings by several of Lucy's friends at daycare (he does the drop-off). 3 or 4 little 4 year old girls apparently LOVE to run over, wrap their arms around his knees, and tell him he's "not allowed to leave". I'm not sure if he worries about it - I know the preschool teachers are always right there, and they laugh, so maybe that is a safety buffer?

As for me and my kids - if I see a man who is obviously a Dad (kid in tow) talking or innocently touching my kids, I wouldn't give it a second thought. Although come to think of it...I usually don't. Maybe men give other people's kids a wide berth. I know Rich has no qualms helping our friends' kids - hell,he's babysat them a number of times, including diaper/potty help, etc.

Huh. I have to think about this. I'll shoot the Saint an e-mail and tell him to come ponder.

Lisa said...

I love reading the perspective of a SAHD. It is very interesting. I am part of that Mommy Club you describe and you are right, I don't even think about it. I help other little ones when necessary, I calm down crying babies if I think I can, and I have even been known to discipline some stangers' 4 yr old that was behaving horribly (it looked like she was going to take down another girl so I had to stpe in and stop it; the paretns weren't even paying attention to thier hellion). I know my husband has been known to watch others' kids, as well as even bathe our friends kids, but I do notice that he doesn't seem that involved with strangers' kids. Usually cuz he is in his own little world!

I'll be interested to see what the Saint has to say......

suttonhoo said...

such a great post on so many levels. wise and wry and perfectly titled.

I think you're concerned with something that's really real and entirely unfair, but I feel it too, even as a woman -- touching other people's children in a caring way is mostly socially illegal, unless they're family or trusted friends.

I can understand the concern, and I follow the rules, but I think that perhaps this "hands off" policy has evolved into a larger abdication of responsibility where adults, in general, are reluctant to straighten out kids who may be strangers to them who are acting in ways that just shouldn't be allowed to fly.

I'm thinking of kids I've straighted out who were bullying another kid, and another batch who were tearing across switchbacks on a mountain trail without any parents nearby to tell them -- "don't beat up on that kid: it's wrong." or "don't tear across the switchbacks because you'll tear up the mountainside: there's a reason we have trails."

sometimes small, sometimes momentous, we all have a responsibility to let kids know what's expected of them. just as we have a responsibility to intervene to protect them -- even if they aren't ours.

I'm grateful for the adults who straightened me out when I was a kid even though my parents weren't in the immediate periphery. All adults have that responsibility -- and for whatever reason it's become less and less socially acceptable for grown ups to call kids on misbehavior. as if their parents are the sole legislators of what they should and should not do.

k. I've exceeded my *own* rules for comment length so I'll put a sock in it. ;)

really enjoyed your post.

I, Rodius said...

Wow, great comments. Thanks! I don't think I've ever seen a suttonhoo comment quite that long. I loved it! I've been kind of in a fugue state about creating my own reality lately, since I watched "What the Bleep Do We Know?" Even without getting into the whole idea of shaping the quantum field, I know that I miss a lot of opportunities because I close doors. On the other hand, I don't want to open the door to false accusations. It's a balancing act, but I should be less tentative and more open. I think. And suttonhoo, the closest I've come to "it takes a village" is telling a boy "don't push, please" at the playground. Pretty mild stuff. But lightning didn't strike me dead. I'll remember you the next time it comes up and hopefully rise to the occasion.

Jennie said...

Oh it DEFINITELY takes a village. I don't even have kids, and I will flat out say "Don't do that" if someone's being mean to another kid or causing danger to themselves. SAYING things to kids is perfectly acceptable; CUDDLING them is something that might earn you some scary looks.

Saint Richard said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to respond to this thread. MVM sent me over Tuesday and I'm just now getting to it.

I definitely feel your fugue. I have a bit of a reputation of being one of those kid-friendly dads. I have often watched my friends' little ones. Lisa can attest to the fact that I would often scoop her little guy out of her arms as soon as the Mo's got to our house. In group situations, you will more often find me entertaining/playing with the kids rather than socializing with the adults.

But when we're not with friends….completely different story. When I see a guy at a playground talking to kids that aren't his own (especially mine), I can't help but feel it's a little creepy. I don't think twice about a mom smiling at or talking to my kids. But a dad…

There was a video I saw recently (on dateline maybe?) where this guy arranged for a bunch of teenage girls to be picking on another girl when people walked by. Overwhelmingly, the men kept walking and the women jumped in and started lecturing the bullies. Not sure where this laissez faire attitude comes from in men, but I'd bet there is a link there.

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