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A few weeks ago, about 45 minutes before his bus comes to take him to kindergarten, my son — after complaining that his stomach hurt — threw up his breakfast.
I cleaned it up, got him dressed, and sent him to school.
Why would I do this? Well, like nearly every parent in those first moments that their kid is kicking off a stomach virus or diarrhea surge, I tried to convince myself that this was due to something that he ate and was now about to end. But of course I knew that made no sense. There are 24-hour bugs, but few half-hour bugs.
But that Tuesday morning, my wife, who works part-time, had a big presentation and was going to be occupied all day long a good hour-and-a-half away. This was not a day to call her home to rescue a sick kid. Especially since I was already there.
But I told my son he was fine. I nearly convinced him that was true, even as I put him on the bus and saw a sad, unsure face looking back. Even though I hadn’t called in sick myself for at least 6 months. And I had no huge meetings or presentations or interviews of any kind. My job is one that is very doable electronically from my home, especially on that day when I had nothing particularly major going on.
So why did I rush in? Because dads show up. Dads don’t stay home with sick little ones. That’s what moms are for.
Of course that is ludicrous. But at my company — which places an inordinate amount of value on office time in a day and age of pervasive wifi — the man is still the breadwinner who makes sacrifices, stays late, digs in, and doesn’t give “excuses” like puke sessions or music recitals.
It’s strange, because my company and my industry seem liberal and enlightened. Women are in executive roles. They are treated well, generally. Maternity leave is generous. One of my colleagues leaves every day at 5:45 PM to relieve her nanny, and nobody bats an eye, no matter what big project she is working on. They work around it. Meanwhile, the rest of us don’t leave until close to 7 PM.
I’m not complaining about my colleague putting her family first. I just wonder if her husband would ever be allowed to get home early. I know I can’t.
It’s not as though anyone spells these rules out to me. It’s a directive that comes down casually, or unspoken.
Like the time when I was lectured on how I could work from home one day as long as it didn’t tax anyone else or make their jobs harder. I wasn’t going to the beach — I wanted to work from home so I could trick-or-treat with my kids for an hour.
Companies are getting better about stuff like paternity leave — but what about day-to-day soccer practice leave?
Or like the fact that I have to do a bunch of early morning work that nobody else on our staff does in the early mornings. Which is fine. Except that I had this assignment with 5-month-old twins. And nobody cared, because it was assumed that my wife would attend to that unfortunate fact.
The unspoken difference can be seen in small ways, such as the fact that nobody ever asks how my kids are doing. Or in how they ride me more than usual if I do ever stay home (by the way, does anyone think it’s a party being home with a sick kid and 2 other kids in diapers?).
This “men still suck it up” thing is pervasive. It’s why my wife, even though she works, still manages our family calendar and lunches and such. Because I’ve got to put in the hours.
I remember being at an industry conference and having a conversation with a reasonably open-minded sales executive. He was relaying a story about how his colleague didn’t like doing conference calls on Sunday nights. This colleague said it wasn’t easy, since he had little kids at home. The guy I was talking to flippantly said, “You have a wife, don’t you?” as if it was so obvious that caring for kids around bedtime was her gig, and not dad’s.
I don’t know how this changes anytime soon in corporate America. There’s still such a stigma in guys leaning back a bit and putting family first. Companies are getting better about stuff like paternity leave — but what about day-to-day soccer practice leave?
Recently I had lunch with another industry colleague. He’d just sold his company and was saying how he can finally breathe just a bit in his career. What’s changed since the sale? He and his partner, another dad, have agreed that they don’t hesitate — any family function, school event, dance performance, preschool graduation, whatever — they don’t miss it.
OK sure, he’s the boss, he can get away with that. But what about the rest of us?
That’s when my friend said something so interesting. “If I’m killing myself and missing every big important life event, then all the guys that work for me think that’s what they have to do.”
Exactly. Unfortunately, not enough dad bosses feel the same way.
Oh — what happened with my son at school that day? Around 10:30 AM or so I got a call at my office from his school. He’d vomited all over himself, another kid, and their lunches. Someone needed to pick him up right away, and my wife and I were both far away. I couldn’t have felt more guilt-ridden and selfish and foolish than I did on the way home. If I was any kind of father, I’d have never sent my son to school, and I’d have stood up to my bosses. Now I was wondering what the protocol was for apologizing to other parents for unplanned vomiting. Do we get their daughter’s Disney T-shirt dry-cleaned?
Thankfully, my dad was around to pick him up. I rushed home to take over. I was expecting to find a boy waiting for me in tears, completely traumatized. In fact, he was feeling good and glad to be home with his toys. He did tell my dad, quite honestly, “Grandpa, daddy should not have sent me to school.”
Doug Parker is a writer for Babble. You can read more from Babble here: