Jed Diamond wants to know why you won’t let him babysit your kids.
Women have rightly fought hard to change attitudes that unfairly label women as too soft, too emotional, or too “hormonal” to be successful. But men, too, are the victims of sexist attitudes that need to be challenged. Writer, Mark Trueblood, stands up for men in an article, Why CNN Owes Father’s An Apology. The CNN article suggested that if a man was supervising a sleepover with his teenaged daughter and her friends, there was more risk of sexual abuse than if the mother was supervising the kids. “This article coldly slaps divorced dads, fathers, and men in general as assumed child molesters,” says Trueblood. Many men and women agreed with him.
I know I’m dating myself to tell you I grew up watching the T.V. series, Father Knows Best starring Robert Young as the wise and caring, Jim Anderson who was always the ideal father to his children Betty (Princess), James Jr. (Bud), and Kathy (Kitten). My family wasn’t like that. I was an only child being raised by a divorced Mom, but I longed for an ideal family where fathers were loving, caring, and supportive.
But, life moves on. I got older, went to college, got married, and my wife and I had two children, Jemal and Angela. Both of us worked and we were both involved in the lives of our kids. We joined a baby-sitting co-op where Moms and Dads could watch the kids of their friends, get credits, so that they could have friends watch their own kids when they wanted to go out. It was a great arrangement.
Like many couples we loved our children, but over the years the stresses of life pulled our marriage apart. My first encounter with sexism occurred after the divorce. The children spent half time with me and half time with my ex-wife. We were still in the co-op and my wife continued to watch our friend’s kids and have them watch ours when she wanted to go out. But once we were divorced no one called me to watch their kids. When I asked what was going on I was told, “Some of the parents are uncomfortable with you. They wonder why you would want to baby sit other people’s kids. They’re suspicious.”
I was totally shocked. I finally sputtered out, “Well, the same reason I watched kids when I was married. I love kids. I have two of my own, in case you haven’t noticed. And I still would like to get away occasionally for a few hours to run errands or whatever … Just like the other parents.” It didn’t do any good. People were still suspicious of a single Dad who loved little kids and stopped asking me to watch their children.
My second experience with sexism occurred when I began to volunteer in my kid’s schools. I had time during the day since I was a therapist and writer. I think I was the only Dad who was a regular in the class rooms. All the other parents were mothers. I was proud to be helping and having a chance to see my son and daughter in their school environments. I also felt good to be bringing some adult male energy into an environment that was dominated by women.
I assisted the teachers in any way they felt was helpful. I particularly enjoyed working in my daughter’s school when she was 9 or 10. The teacher wanted me to help kids that were having trouble with their writing skills. I would bend down, often put a hand on their arm or back for support and comfort, as I did when helping my own kids, and reassure them that they were competent and could do the assignment. I helped and they seemed to appreciate my supportive presence.
One day my daughter came up to me after class and told me that “the kids don’t want you touching them.” At first I thought she was joking. She and I would kid each other a lot. But she was serious. I asked her what she meant, but she just shrugged and said the teacher had said something to her. I went and talked to the teacher and she said she was uncomfortable with the way I touched the girls in the class and she thought it best if I helped in ways where I wasn’t in physical contact with the kids. I asked if one of the kids had complained. She was vague in her reply.
I told her that her suggestion, that I was touching the girls inappropriately, was ridiculous. The way I touched the kids was no different than the way I touched my own children and I touched my son the same way I touched my daughter, with love, care, and support. I became more enraged, the more we talked and I eventually stormed out of her office. I never came back.
At home alone I quizzed myself. Was I touching the girls differently than the boys? Was there something about me that was unsafe? I felt dirty and ashamed, even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I felt misunderstood and alone. I talked to my daughter and tried to explain my feelings of despair. Looking back now, with many years in between, I wish I had been stronger in my own defense and in the defense of fathers and men.
Clearly this kind of sexism isn’t going away any time soon. I do think things are better for men than when I was a young father. But the big difference is that more and more men and women are standing up and speaking out against sexism in all its forms. When men are told that their interest in small children is suspect, that touching children with kindness and love is inappropriate, everyone loses, particularly the children.