I’m not going to bother trying to pinpoint an exact 60-minute span that constitutes The Dadding Hour, because it varies from week to week and really refers more to a chunk of time than an actual trip around the clock (you know, like how The Witching Hour might be from 4 to 10), but it takes place early on Sunday mornings when dads and their wee ones are out, in public places, in droves. They look weary, beleaguered, sometimes defeated. A precious few of them have a mystical put-together look, an inexplicable pep in their step, a casual sprightliness that I cannot pretend to emulate. Usually—but not always—those are the dads of the older kids (say, 6 and above), those weird, tall creatures who sometimes say their r’s and can walk more than 5 feet without stopping to sit down on the sidewalk to take their shoes off and put a cigarette butt in their mouths. But for the most part, the dads I see are carting around tiny humans from the 0-4 set, and they’re a disheveled collection of unshaven, bed-headed, baggy-eyed coffee-slurpers. And they are legion.
Me? I’m one of them
Sometimes when I’m out in the eye of The Dadding Hour, when a random non-dad-person (RNDP) makes a snarky comment like “are we giving poor mama a couple hours to herself?” or “did papa dress the baby today?” or “watch out, dad’s in charge!” or “may I have the half & half after you please,” I find myself on the precipice of launching into an explanation. A defensive missive about my role in my family, how this isn’t my only job as a father, dammit, and how dare you make assumptions about me and why are you out and about at 6:23 a.m. when you don’t seem to have a small child with you?
But I don’t. Because actually, I have those feelings even when no one has spoken a word to me.
Those comments DO get to me, and my Feels about them warrant a separate piece (especially the oft-heard remark about dressing the baby). But by reflecting on the nature of my defensiveness, I realized I may actually be part of my own problem, because deep down, I find myself wanting to be a “different” dad, needing to prove it somehow. Different from what? I’m not sure, exactly. The dad stereotype, the bumbling buffoon who can only handle two hours on a Sunday with the kids before returning to his, um, I don’t know, man-den to dad-watch man-ball? See, I can’t even stereotype properly. By getting my boxers in a twist, I’m doing a lot of assuming about all those other dads out there, and as we all know, when we’re assuming, we make an ASS out of U and MING, presumably a reference to former NBA tallman Yao Ming who was famous for his assumptions about ball handling (I think that’s how it goes, but I haven’t slept more than 1.75 consecutive hours in months except for the one time I got super sick with a fever and I took a 3-hour nap and it was the best day of my life).
Anyway. Let me explain.
Shortly after the birth of my first child over three years ago, when she was only about a week old, I ventured out of the house with her. It was my maiden voyage as a solo dad. I was nervous, proud, excited to go “outside” (a place I had vague memories of), and most of all, overwhelmed. I packed Baby Alice tightly into the ergo, with the infant insert and some burp cloths crammed in there for good measure, and took a rickety 20-minute walk to go get myself some breakfast and breathe some of that “fresh air” and soak in some of that “sunlight” I’d been hearing so much about.
I stopped first for coffee, and as I approached the café I actually rehearsed ordering a “large black coffee with room please” because my interactions with other grown human beings had dwindled severely in the prior week and I didn’t trust myself. I vaguely remember someone asking me cheekily in line if I actually had anything at all in that Ergo, and I laughed good-naturedly and pointed to the vague bump Alice’s tiny body made in the carrier and say “what, this? No, this is where I carry my dead parrot’s urn” and the person flinched with confused horror and I realized I should try to salvage the conversation because I needed that coffee and my unexpectedly dark humor had bombed, and so I opened the Ergo’s “lid” to reveal you sleeping peacefully and said “heh no it’s a human baby” which might have sounded even creepier, and then I laughed the laugh of a crazy man and it was my turn to order.
It was there that I first noticed all the dads. It was easy to miss them, especially in my stupor, camouflaged as they were. But as I waited for my drink, I started to see them: darkening the door with hunched-over silhouettes, struggling with strollers, carrying tiny babes like I was, tucked in corners of the coffee shop pounding a triple espresso next to a muffin-eating toddler, even skulking around with—GASP—two kids (I have a memory of actually seeing a dad with three kids once, but I think it’s an urban legend) with matching pajamas. Most of the kids and babies are in pajamas during The Dadding Hour, mind, and I’m only not because I sleep in my boxers and even though I may currently live in a clothes-optional household, the world at large isn’t as enlightened yet.
I next walked up the street to the local bagelry, a place I’ve been to almost unfailingly every Sunday since, and it was there that the denizens of The Dadding Hour came into sharper focus. This place serves both coffee AND bagels, making it an ideal destination for the guardians of early risers, and fleeting in and out came a tide of dads. I started to come back weekly, sometimes more, and every time I’d see the dads. And you know what? I had this weird urge to resist admitting I was one of them. It wasn’t long before I began making those assumptions: you may be here to spell Mama, Random Dad, after handling only like 41% of the emotional labor of your household this week, but me, oh no, I’m an equal parent and I took all 12 weeks the state allowed on paternity leave, and please let me list for you the household chores I’m in charge of which include cooking. What a dick, right? I realized I was part of the problem. What the fuck do I know about these fine men?
For me, my weekly sojourns happen to be a tradition that began with that initial brave egress from the confines of my apartment. My now-three-year-old daughter adores “bagel coffee” with her Papa as much as I do, and now that her younger brother tags along, it’s even more delightful. What’s not to like? She picks either a steamed milk or a pastry from the coffee shop, usually does a little ballet show for the few other early risers, then does a combination of “fast running” and “take a lil break” up the block where she enjoys a lightly-toasted blueberry bagel (avoiding the crust even though a bagel is ALL CRUST) while asking “what are you doing?” of anyone who walks by and gives hugs to Stephanie with the blue hair who has made Alice’s Sunday breakfast for years. But for the other dads, well: what do I know? Maybe it’s a tradition too. Maybe it’s their first time and they had to get out of the house. Maybe they’re nannies. Maybe they’re on their own, always or sometimes. Maybe Mama’s out of town, or the other Dad is, or their family works and/or keeps different hours than mine. Maybe they are giving Mama a few hours of delicious sleep—that’s not an insignificant part of my own tradition, after all. Maybe they do work a lot and want some time with their damn kids and we’re not all out to smash the patriarchy all at once at all times, even though I think we should probably strive for that. There are a hundred maybes for every dad.
I shouldn’t assume anything, not about these dads, not about any other parent. I certainly hope they won’t jump to conclusions about me, especially after that one time I let Alice eat an entire box of animal crackers because all I wanted to do was sit for five minutes without talking to anyone and I pretended not to watch her pick up the ones she dropped on the floor to eat them. Anything that contributes to parental competition should be quashed, particularly by noticing when one is falling prey to one’s own pet peeves.
I even have a sneaking suspicion that The Dadding Hour may even be a construct of my own mind, the result of confirmation bias that only allows me to see all those dads and their kids when it’s Sunday morning at 6:07 AM, a day/time combo during which no human should be fully dressed and in a public place. There are probably moms out too, doing what moms do (excel at parenting), as well as grandparents and nannies and other adults, and the dads that I do see are probably out at other days and times as well, just like me, dadding it up the best they can. This whole lesson was a reminder to myself of just how easily I become defensive when I’m flailing, or even mildly floundering, or even just living the parent life. It’s hard, and it’s personal, but it’s also incredibly public. And if dads are going to continue to work on being equal parents, dudes like me need to check ourselves.
Which isn’t to say I’m not going to write a passionate defense of how I dress my children.