'The everyday sexism I face as a stay-at-home dad'

Matthew and his daughter on the beach

When a gay Londoner and his partner had a child they knew they were likely to experience homophobia. What they were not ready for was sexism. But, as Matthew Jenkin explains here, when he goes out in public with his daughter it’s an everyday occurrence.

It was a gloriously sunny day – one of those mini-heatwaves in April that fills you with false hope for the summer. Feeling optimistic, I decided to take my six-month-old daughter, Carla, to a baby sensory class a few tube stops away in Clapham.

All the parents I knew raved about how their babies were captivated by the creative genius of it all and, most importantly, soothed to sleep by the gentle music and twinkly lights. Carla, however, was not so impressed.

The moment we walked through the door, she exploded. It was a full-blown meltdown. She screamed blue murder and tears streamed down her face, mixing with a river of mucus bubbling from her perfect button nose.

I tried to keep calm and carry on, hoping Carla would settle once the class began. I joined the circle of mums with their serenely happy infants for the opening baby massage and song section, but my girl only grew more distressed. Halfway through You are my sunshine, Carla’s hysterics crescendoed and then it happened. I was a dad in a sea of mums struggling to soothe his child, so the group decided to come to the rescue. Instead of support, I was offered pity and condescension.

“Have you thought about changing her nappy?” suggested one mother. “Do you think she’s hungry?”

And worst of all: “Perhaps I should hold the baby for you?”

I was so focused on caring for my daughter that I wasn’t quick enough to snipe back that this isn’t my first time looking after a baby. I am a stay-at-home dad and have been wiping her bottom and drying her tears since she was born. I certainly didn’t need a childcare 101 from a circle of mothers I’d never met. I left the class and immediately broke down in tears.

It’s hard to imagine a woman in the same situation being offered an idiot’s guide to parenting or being asked to hand over her child to a total stranger. But I’ve faced this kind of everyday sexism time and time again.

I was humiliated by a woman who, having seen me bottle-feeding Carla in public, physically showed me how to do it “properly” and chastised me for wearing clothes that might irritate the baby’s delicate skin. Then there was the time I was scolded by another stranger for supposedly standing too close to the kerb with the buggy. A car might swerve up on to the pavement and kill the baby, apparently.

The funny thing is, sexism was the last thing I was expecting when I became a daddy. It was homophobia.

Carla was born in the US to a surrogate mother – the culmination of a hugely emotional journey. We were overjoyed to be in the delivery room for the birth, to cut the cord and enjoy the all important skin-to-skin contact. We were very proud parents.

When we returned to the UK, we were expecting a mixed reaction to the news. Same-sex parenting is, of course, still relatively uncommon and surrogacy as a means of conceiving remains controversial.

When Tom Daley and his husband, Dustin Lance Black, announced they were expecting a child through surrogacy they were subjected to a torrent of homophobia. So we expected questions to be asked, eyebrows raised and even abuse.

Health visitors have shown their disapproval on occasion by greeting the news of Carla’s two fathers with a sharp intake of breath, a shocked “Oh!” and then an awkward silence. I was left feeling uncomfortable and more reluctant to visit the baby clinic, despite the constant insecurity all new parents feel during that crucial first year.

The lack of specific gender roles is confusing for some. Mothers I’ve met have asked if I am somehow the “mummy” – assuming my role as the primary carer conforms to the traditional gender stereotype of a mother. I am “daddy” and my husband is “papa” – we haven’t set any ground rules other than to love and care for our daughter come what may.

Our most shocking experience was during lunch at a restaurant. We had just sat down at the table when suddenly Carla woke abruptly from her nap, crying. We were trying our best to soothe her when the waitress approached.

“Two men cannot look after a baby. Next time bring a woman,” she scolded us.

I was quick to correct her, but we left in a hurry, angry and embarrassed. My initial reaction to the incident was that this was homophobia, but the comment was equally sexist. As I discovered, the everyday sexism of the parenting world was far more demoralising and commonplace than anti-gay sentiment.

I found the first few months with a newborn not only exhausting but also very lonely. Carla had severe reflux meaning she vomited most of her milk all over both of us after every feed. It took a lot of courage to take her outside the safe confines of the home, and finding a playgroup where I felt welcome was a challenge.

The names of many activities suitable for infants are usually targeted at mothers only, when in reality a father could easily join in if he wished. “Mum and yoga”, “Mum and baby salsa”, “Mum and me ballet”, “Mum and baby crawler” – the list goes on. Groups for fathers were scheduled for the weekend only.

It was isolating and I felt unnecessarily excluded from social groups that I might have benefited from. When I did find a wonderful music class to join, I was dismayed to find even children’s songs are misandrous. Take the song Wheels on the Bus – while the gentle, caring mummies on the bus go “Shhhhh”, the callous daddies go “What’s that noise?”

The precious few other stay-at-home fathers I have met at playgroups tell me similar stories of feeling alienated in a mum-orientated baby culture.

I am not for one minute claiming men are somehow the great oppressed. In many ways it is the patriarchal society that we have created coming back to bite us.

Changes to employment law which allow parents to share parental leave are enabling more men to enjoy those joyous (and tough) first few months bonding with their child. But we need to recognise that the culture surrounding parenting also needs to change to encourage more fathers to take the plunge – gay or straight.

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