The “Hapless Dad” Stereotype Is Offensive–Until It’s Not


Last Mother’s Day, while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I remember seeing this article about the Tough Mother Challenge. I sat there for a bit, looking at the sensationalistic title, and was dumbfounded that in 2015 this is still considered something that will draw a chuckle from most “ordinary folks.” Imagine–a dad changing diapers! Cooking a meal! Picking out something for the kids to wear! Doing a load of laundry! For AN ENTIRE WEEKEND! The avenues for hilarity seemed endless, let me tell you. (Fortunately, as of right now, I haven’t seen an article like it in the news this year)

I scrolled through a number of dads’ responses to the article. Some were humorous, some (like mine) were angry, and some were insightful, like this one:

Sharing care is a two-way deal, and the really hard bit is LETTING GO of a role you possess – much harder than taking more of the other role on. The silver lining: 200 mothers are going to let go of their lead role for a weekend. In similar games like this in UK, the results are quite interesting, because fathers discover the privileges they are missing out on, and some families strike new deals (but the media won’t report that – it won’t fit “the story”.)–Duncan Fisher

Duncan was spot on–stories about how this experiment might change the way partners approach raising their kids would most likely be ignored, in favor of the “hapless, harried dad” stereotype. One story even had the tired cliché of Dad burning the toast while trying to make breakfast. Really?

I was all prepared to fire off an angry email to the editors of the Daily Mail to chastise them for perpetuating this outmoded way of thinking. This story got my dander up, and I was ready to let loose on the poor intern or secretary who would undoubtedly open my email.

But I didn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t. Because later on, the Hapless Dad stereotype ended up rescuing me.

The girls were out of school on a break, which typically means that when I need to do pretty much anything, they have to come with me. On this particular day, I had to ship a package to Canada, which meant I had to go to the post office (it requires filling out a customs form, which I can’t do online). It also meant tearing the girls away from whatever it was they were doing to wrestle them into the car, with Daughter #1 protesting the whole time “But why do we have to go?”

After finally getting them to the post office, there inevitably was a line.  The girls are far past the age for a stroller, so I had no way of corralling them when they started tearing around the lobby, running back and forth, and touching everything within reach. In spite of my pleas for calm, there was little I could do, since chasing after them would mean losing my place in line. I spoke gently. I spoke firmly. I yelled (not my finest hour, I admit). I promised incentives. I promised bribes. Nothing was working.

Finally, it came to my turn, and just as I was ready to start, Daughter #2 announced “I have to go potty.” And there’s no potty at the post office. Of course.

I assured her that we were almost finished, and that I would get her home, or someplace with a bathroom, as soon as possible. Fortunately, no one else was in line behind me, and the mail clerk at the counter, who had witnessed my struggles, took pity on me. “We have a bathroom in the back,” she said. “I can let you back there when we’re done.”  I thanked her profusely (I’m sure it helped that the clerk was a woman–and probably a mom to boot).

So our trip to the post office turned out to be educational as well as something off of our to-do list. I learned how to mail a package to Canada, and the girls and I got to see what a post office looks like from the other side of the counter.

Normally, I’m pretty together about these sorts of things, but there are times when I’m hassled and harried and I forget to go through the checklist (potty before we leave, things to occupy them, etc.). Whether consciously or unconsciously, did I play up my distress during this incident? Perhaps. Do I feel good about it? No. Fortunately and unfortunately, our society has low expectations for dads out alone with their kids, and we can get away with getting special treatment if things go wrong. But doing so, while it helped me in the short run, it just perpetuates the stereotype.

And I’m not planning on resorting to that again, if I can help it.

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