We live in the 21st Century. Apparently we are modern, diverse and multi-cultural. Women can vote. Men use moisturizer. We certainly don’t confirm to the patriarchal norms laid down by our unenlightened pre-historic forefathers.
I went to the park with my two young sons today after collecting them from school. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, full of hope for a decent Spring, and the park soon filled up with their friends and other kids from nearby schools. After a while I looked around and realised that I was the only member of the male gender in the vicinity over the age of seven…
All of these kids were with their mums, grans, aunties, whatever. There was not a dad in sight. (There was also not a black, Asian or other ethnic minority representative to be seen, but that probably highlights a wider issue about where I live than I have room to discuss here.) I thought we were all much more finely attuned to the realities of life these days. Both my wife and I work part-time so we can share the school run duties. It just seems odd to me that there still doesn’t seem to be much of that going on.
Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally see a couple of dads at school, but we are in the definite minority. Sometimes I make eye contact with one. You get a sort of half-embarrassed look like you’ve caught them doing something they’d rather not be seen doing; something unpleasant, like removing the remains of a dead cat from under the wheel arch of their car. Sometimes I get a look of sympathy, like we’ve become members of a secret persecuted sect, consoling each other in our moment of need.
The truth is I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve no real interest in sport and I don’t read the tabloid press. Consequently I find I rarely have anything to make small talk about when I do find myself with another dad. Once the conversational possibilities of talking about the kids wear out, which with most other dads is usually pretty quickly, I struggle to keep it going.
I find myself staring at my children, trying to summon up enough telekinetic powers to make one of them fall off a swing, just so I have an excuse to get away from this awkward moment of male-male incompatibility.
When I find myself alone amongst a sea of mums I find I’m equally bad at making conversation. I wondered as looked around what we must have all looked like about ten years ago. For me at least two stones lighter. The only other possible location we would have all been in at the same time then was a nightclub. Would we have all looked this tired and worn down? It is as though every mirror in the house must have broken, and I’m including myself in that group of unlucky souls.
Again, I’m fine if my conversation with a mum can stick to being about the kids or the school, but dammit we’re adults aren’t we? Shouldn’t we talk about other stuff too? My problem is that I was never that good at talking to girls either.
When I was a teenager it was my friends that did all the talking, and I just lurked at the back of the group trying to pull off the cockney swagger of Damon Albarn in the hope that they would think I was cool and desirable. You can imagine how that worked out. Girls were mysterious and seemingly impossible to approach. I did not have the looks, charm or wit to really get anywhere with any of them. I was terrified to speak in case I came across as too flirtatious, needy, moronic or just plain incoherent, and the only time girls did come up to talk to me was to find out more about my friends.
The one blip in this otherwise consistent failure was when I met my future wife. Don’t ask me how it happened, because that should probably be for another blog. My successes with her lead me to the mistaken assumption that perhaps talking to girls wasn’t so difficult after all.
Fast forward fifteen years and I find myself in the park surrounded by kids and mums. What is the etiquette in these situations? I can only identify these women by whose mother they are, which I’m sure is also true towards me.
A kid rode past me on his scooter and said “Hello Billy’s dad”. Should you just stroll up, introduce yourself and ask for their name? What do you do if you actually find some of these mums fairly attractive? I think it’s the attractive ones that are harder to talk to, as I revert mentally back to those awkward moments of my youth. I worry that if I try to just be myself, you know, friendly, make some jokes, talk about the kids and the weather, will they think I’m flirting? Will they think I’m weird for being the only dad in the park? Perhaps they find themselves pitying my wife, who clearly has a feckless husband who is unable to earn a decent living to support his family like their other-halves do.
Maybe that’s what it is. Dads look at each other with shame and embarrassment at the school gate because they know that they are being judged. “Why aren’t you at work?” is what they imagine people are asking to themselves. Mentally at least, it feels that most of us are still in the Stone Age.
Adrian Smith lives by the seaside with his wife Sarah and two children Billy and Oscar. He is a college lecturer by profession and also writes for Cinema Retro Magazine, The Black Box Club and his own blog. Adrian also keeps himself busy with filmmaking and photography, and you can see his work over at Jet Pack Pictures. Whether he finds enough time to be a good father is open to discussion.