Recently, I took my newborn son to a diner, where we did… nothing particularly interesting. My son saw me eating and he got jealous, so I asked for some hot water and heated up a bottle and fed him. This is not exactly radical stuff. I can feed him with one hand and myself with the other. That’s what I was doing when the first woman came up to me and apologized for taking my picture. She confided that she just was just so impressed that I knew how to give a baby a bottle. She complimented me several more times before suggesting that I tilt the bottle a little higher next time. A minute later, a second woman approached me expressing wide-eyed admiration for how well I had taking care of my son. After we visited for a minute, she added a recommendation that I put socks on him when we go out so his toes wouldn’t get cold.
By the time we left, six different women had approached me to shower me with praise and unsolicited advice on how to improve my caregiving.
I tried to get some perspective on that experience — to figure out how I truly felt about it. I am, after all, a therapist. This is what I would advise so it’s what I do.
One way you could describe the process of therapy is as a search for the most useful story. Stories are like different lenses and they can determine how we experience the world. In my work, I encourage people to find stories that evoke growth, peace, and happiness. My initial story about the diner was probably too limited. I wa amazed everyone was so nice. But when I told a friend about it, her reaction was to say that it made her want to vomit. She was grossed out by the double standard, the level of approval that men get for doing what women do all the time. It was a valid point and valuable for me to hear. But that story is also not entirely fair to me or to the women in the diner. My privilege, though real, can’t fully explain the women’s motivations.
So I’ve thought on this and come up with five different stories — all, I think, plausible.
The Misperceived Distress Story: When I was younger I use to fast once a month for 24 hours as a spiritual practice. That first bite of food after fasting was always the most delicious. My life has taken a number of twists and turns, and one of the consequences is that I waited nearly 30 years longer than I wanted to for the opportunity to be a dad. Similar to breaking a fast, I am savoring every part of the experience of being a father. I don’t want to be rescued from dirty diapers, sleepless nights, crying fits or anything. I want to savor every aspect of this miracle, even those moments that are difficult. Perhaps the women are noticing the parts that are not easy and assuming that I feel stressed and wish someone would save me from this gauntlet of growth I’ve waited so long to experience?
The Incompetent Buffoon Story: Should I experience compliments as insults? The astonishment might reflect a story that men are innately (or genetically) less capable of keeping a baby alive than women. Should my story be that women believe male brains are capable of changing a tire or cleaning out a rain gutter, but that God did not install a chip in our brains enabling us to wipe a bum or bathe an infant? Maybe the women who approach me assume I am just a backup parent who might need supervision until the primary caretaker returns? Are they rescuing me or are they really focused on ensuring the baby survives male care?
The Flirting Story: I’ve taken a long look in the mirror and must honestly acknowledge that I have not gotten any more handsome in the last couple of months. If anything, I’ve earned my Dad bod by eating ice cream while waiting until my kid finally falls asleep. A friend encouraged me to realize that babies are like catnip for women. Do these women use babies as an excuse to have conversations with me?
The Triangulation Story: Maybe the sight of me taking care of a child is just useful fodder for couples having conflicts over parenting. One story I had was that the picture taken of me feeding a baby would end up being used to shame a husband who was slacking? Maybe the women are approaching me in order to get so they can better triangulate me into discussions with their partners?
The No-Good Story Story: My guesses are likely just projections and perhaps there isn’t a single story that explains why women might be trying to rescue me. Clearly something continues to be evocative about men caring for children in our society. Regardless of the meaning, it holds for others, though, there is value in being mindful about the story I create about the phenomenon. Don’t believe everything you think or that there is only one story possible. Whether one is bombarded with positive or negative messages, critically examining the meaning you make about both can be a worthwhile process. Mostly I think I will continue to view the mixed messages as being rooted in kindness.
All parents, regardless of gender, need a supportive community and sometimes you find that in a diner. Why? I’m not totally sure. And I’m not sure motivation is the thing that matters most. I don’t mind being patronized by people who want to support me and I don’t mind admitting that women treat me more generously than they are treated. These things are all true. Diners don’t serve clean stories.
Jason Platt is a couples and family therapist living in Mexico City, Mexico. As a new father at fifty, he is glad to have an excuse now for watching Spongebob SquarePants.