I’ve always loved kids. From a very young age I’ve been captivated by the innocence of young children, by how they have no filter, allowing their emotions and opinions to flow unencumbered.
I was so captivated by kids that I babysat as a young teen, but found those jobs dried up as I got older. I applied for jobs at daycare centers when I was in college but was never called back for interviews. I was a recreational swim team coach in the summers, and was able to hold onto that job, but my role with the kids was different. I was an authority figure, not a caretaker. Too bad no one saw the irony in how much I and the other coaches were glorified baby sitters, as mothers would drop off their little bundles at the pool and disappear for five hours, when practice only lasted an hour.
Thankfully I was as naïve as the kids when it came to the inherent bias that exists in our society: girls take care of children, boys don’t. I was, however, unable to avoid this bias when I became a stay-at-home father. We had just moved from Massachusetts to California, where my wife and I had determined that it made more sense for me to stay at home with our two boys. The money I was making as a freelance technical writer was barely covering the cost of day-care, and our youngest was miserable; he was, and still is a homebody.
So. First day with the boys. No work. Not calling my now former clients, and not thinking about how to acquire more work. What to do? Well, it was a beautiful late summer day. The most logical decision was to go to a nearby playground.
We showed up at the playground and the boys scattered like that handful of napkins you drop in the fast food parking lot on a windy day. My style as a parent was to let them run. I kept them in sight, but I wasn’t going to hover. I also knew that soon they would be coming to me to push them on swing sets, or help them grab monkey bars that were just out of reach.
My boys were enjoying the new playground, but I found it strange that despite being on a moderately busy playground I was feeling somewhat alone. Moments later my youngest asked me to push him on a swing. I never refused such a request, and soon he was pumping his legs out of sync with my pushes of him, counter-acting my pushing, but his tiny little legs, and 35 pounds neither slowed him down nor accelerated him more than my pushing.
Within moments some random little guy grappled his way up onto the swing next to my son. The look on his face was a frenetic cross between envy and excitement. “Can you push me too?!” he blurted out into the air, not necessarily in my direction.
“Of course,” I replied.
I didn’t think. He was a little boy who saw another little boy his age who was cackling and having a great time. This boy wanted to have that fun too. I reached forward with my left hand, and not knowing this boy’s coordination, or strength, or fear of heights, or fear of speed, I placed my outspread hand on his lower back and gave him a gentle push.
His legs naturally swung out, and as the swing started its journey backwards, he pulled his heels under him. When his swing hesitated on its return, ready to start its next cycle, I placed my hand in the same place and gave him a harder shove.
Conveniently my son completed his return swing just as I finished my shove of the little boy, allowing me to return attention on my son, placing my right hand on my son’s lower back, and gaving him a good hard push. Both boys were giddy – there’s nothing like the unfettered laughter of little kids – but three shoves later things changed.
The boys mother arrived. She stood on the left side of her son, and slowed him to a stop, all the while never taking her eyes off me. Firmly, calmly, and with that kiss of compassion that’s trying to mask concern she said, “We need to go.” The unaware little boy happily acknowledged his mother, “OK.”
I didn’t say anything to this mother, swaying between feeling like I should have known better – after all, I was a strange man pushing some other person’s son on a swing – to thinking, “if I was another mom, would this mother have reacted that way,” to thinking “well, maybe they had someplace else to go and this was all a coincidence.” But as I looked to my left, to the far end of the playground, I saw the mother barely keeping her eye on her son who was now doing laps up and down a slide as she was talking to another mother.
My swaying didn’t stop. How could it? No rational man could blame the mother for her actions. The problem for me was I would never know what her motivations were. And this had happened in California of all places: a place that I thought was going to be so much more liberal, open minded, and accepting. But when children are involved, rules change, and there I was, sliding into a new identity – that of stay-at-home father – with no idea of what truly lay in front of me.