What a forlorn and unpromising tale of fatherhood was shared recently by stay-at-home gay dad Matthew Jenkin. So distressed was he after his experience at a sensory class for babies to which he had taken his six-month-old daughter that he left the class and ‘immediately broke down in tears’. The reason? Not the fact that little Carla had gone into ‘full-blown meltdown’, screamed ‘blue murder’ and then become even ‘more distressed’. It was that the baby’s ‘hysterics had crescendoed and then it happened’. The dreadful ‘it’ turned out to be when the group of mothers ‘decided to come to the rescue’. What on earth, one wonders, was the monstrous treatment meted out at this Clapham gathering to the ‘dad in a sea of mums’?
Well, it was about one mother asking him if he’d thought of changing her nappy. Another then another asking if the baby might be hungry. Worst of all, Jenkin fumed, was when one said: ‘Perhaps I should hold the baby for you.’ To most people these might have seemed merely well-intentioned attempts to help a floundering dad, one who by his own admission seemed to be at a total loss to stem his child’s heightened distress. Not to the emotional Jenkin though. He described the mothers’ practical, sensible and – dare one say the word? maternal – suggestions as offering him ‘pity and condescension’ instead of ‘support’.
In his own babyish indignation, he was defensive and dismissive of any notion that he might need a ‘childcare 101 from a group of mothers I’d never met’. His take on the matter was that far from being the kind of homophobia he’d been anticipating, this was just ‘everyday sexism’. He chuntered that it was hard to imagine a woman in the same situation being offered ‘an idiot’s guide’ to parenting. On other outrageous occasions he has had to deal with the humiliation when bottle feeding of a woman physically showing him how to ‘do it properly’. To add insult to injury, she also apparently chastised him for ‘wearing clothes that might irritate the baby’s delicate skin’. Then there was the time when he was ‘scolded by another stranger for supposedly standing too close to the kerb with a buggy. A car might swerve up on the pavement and kill the baby apparently’. This reaction would be merely petulant and arrogant if it were not for the more worrying scornful detachment concerning his baby’s physical safety. What a thoroughly unnatural response to a stranger’s (likely very real) concern.
The prevailing note struck here is of the obstinate self-centredness of this gay stay-at-home dad. It really, however, is not about him and his feelings and his sense of his own identity. He may not want to hear this (and nor do many mums) but it simply stops being all about you when you have a baby. Parenthood involves sacrifice. With the struggling Jenkin, though, offers to help are not accepted with good grace but rather his own spiral into a barely contained ‘don’t tell me what to do’ hissy fit. One doubts that those around him were champing at the bit for a chance to put him down, humiliate, patronise, condescend or whatever. Or maybe gay dads have coined ‘mumsplain’. What seems more likely is that there was such disruptive mayhem with the hapless Jenkin and his non-stop screaming baby that the clueless dad was simply offered a few reasonable suggestions to calm her down and find the source of her distress.
Anybody who has looked after a baby knows that they don’t cry for no reason. It’s fairly simple. They want something: to be free from hunger, thirst, heat, coldness, wetness, discomfort, pain, loneliness, insecurity, boredom, tiredness. Maybe even from a foolish and inept carer. Yes, looking after a baby is exhausting, overwhelming and many other things besides. But it isn’t difficult in the sense of problem-solving regarding tears. Jenkins is keen to point out how long he’s been caring for his child, but if he were such a dab hand he would not have let the baby-group scenario descend into such an unremitting disaster. If he were such an alert and watchful dad, he wouldn’t have kerbside strangers suggesting he might possibly just want to back the baby away an inch or two further from an approaching white van trying to make a late delivery or a car where the driver is snapchatting someone. Or swiping left. Or right. Or all the other things people are doing now rather than keeping their eyes on the road. Honestly. Sometimes we really need just to accept comments in the spirit in which they’re given. Especially when they involve an infant’s welfare.
This gay stay-at-home dad is also affronted by the idea that some mothers feel compelled to ask him, if awkwardly and with one imagines an uncertain politeness, if he is ‘the mummy’. It’s a perfectly reasonable inquiry. Unless, I suppose, you inhabit a world where, in hock to your own emotional and lifestyle choice needs, you have through surrogacy taken steps deliberately to engineer a mother out of your child’s life right from the start. Doesn’t need a mother. Two dads is just as good. Well, you know what, many of us beg to differ. The real answer to the question about whether he is the ‘mummy’ is, of course, as most of us know, that he is not. Neither is the husband with whom he is raising the child. Therein lies the problem.