Calling myself a stay-at-home dad is a bit disingenuous, as my daughter and I rarely stay at home.
On a typical mid-week, mid-morning visit to our nearby playground, a mother ushers her crying child past us. "I'll go and see if anyone has any plasters." she says to her daughter. I tell the mother that I have plasters if she needs any.
She stops, enthusiastically answers yes, and walks over with her crying daughter who has a pair of grazed knees. I tell them I hope Spider-Man ones are ok, and the mother tells her daughter how lucky she is the nice man helped us, and that her brother will be so jealous of the plasters (he comes over and does indeed look on jealously).
I notice the girl has a snotty nose, the kind that often accompanies such bouts of crying. As I offer a tissue, the mother's eyes widen, and she tells me & her daughter how amazing I am, how great the Spider-Man plasters are, and again how lucky they are the nice man was here - because mummy forgot to bring anything.
The mother laughs when I compare my daughter's changing bag to a secret agents 'go bag', that's always packed with necessities so we can just grab it on the way out. Plasters applied, nose wiped, the mother thanks me again and heads off.
Moments later, I am cleaning something unsavoury from the bottom of my daughters shoe. A little girl comes up to us, intrigued about what I'm doing. A little older than my daughter, she starts asking me questions, such as what's that picture on my daughter's shoes "Turtles." I reply. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." It was the beginning of a nice conversation.
Suddenly, her mother strides over and pulls the girl away from us without looking at me or saying anything until they stop beneath a nearby tree, where the little girl is admonished for talking to a "strange man". The girl looks perplexed. Her mother then drags her back to a chattering huddle of other mothers in the centre of the playground.
This is a clique I call the mum-hub.
I have never been invited into its confines. Once I spotted a mother I'd met before, who I'd been talking to at a pre-school visit, who I'd since exchanged hellos with on the street and in the supermarket. She seemed nice, and I was looking forward to chatting to her again. I made eye contact and smiled, hoping to get at least a smile in return. She immediately looked away and then spent the afternoon laughing enthusiastically with her fellow hubbers, ignoring me even when I was right beside her.
I have never seen any dads in the hub. Not even partners. The hub is usually a child-free zone too, a place of mothers in conversation while their children fend for themselves. This day there were lots of crying and distressed pre-school children who needed the attention of scattered lone parents, before their actual parent in the hub noticed. Yet, the reaction was swift when a little girl decided to talk to me, the strange man.
None of the other mums I know - actually know as opposed to the lady I chatted to once - are ever in the hub either, and many in fact tell me of feeling equally excluded. The friendly mother who I gave the Spider-Man plasters to was not in it either. I can only assume these mothers think nothing of a dad playing with his daughter.
To me, the hub represents those collections of mothers that are off limits to at-home dads like me. They exist in playgrounds, playgroups, school gates, and cafes. They are cliques of mothers whose exclusively female daytime community is by design not accident, that prefer their women only social-parenting life. Who find it odd that a man might want to be at home with their children, perhaps even suspicious. Mothers like Loose Women's Nadia Sawalha, who stated "I don't really want to talk to them. I don't want them to be there".
I obviously find it sad that this is the case. I'm not going to confront them about it. There's a bit of live & let live, but mainly because it's pretty ugly in front of children. What I can do is continue to be the engaged father I am, take my daughter to the playground, and hopefully little girls - and boys too - will grow up knowing there is nothing weird, or anything to be afraid of, about seeing a man with his child in the playground.
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