The Frontiers of Fathering (or, “Kicked Out of the Macho Club”)

24 Aug

My partner, Conan, is one of the bravest men in Mexico. He is not a firefighter, or a lifeguard on Puerto’s very dangerous beach. He’s not a soldier, or a cop, or a fighter jet pilot, or any of the things that we normally associate with male bravery. He’s gone from being a roofer for 10 years in the U.S., to helping run his mom’s store and selling cell phones, to overseeing construction on our house being built, and now this. He’s currently a full-time, stay-at-home dad, which is about the rarest and most treacherous job a man can get down here in the south of Oaxaca. 

My favorite team for the better-world revolution 

Being a stay-at-home parent is a difficult feat for any gender, in any country. Imagine trying to maintain your sanity, hour after hour of being mostly alone in the outrageous and insane world of a baby or a small child, day after day. Plus there is some expectation that you will accomplish some domestic tasks beyond keeping your head on straight. It’s no wonder that women who stay home often join parenting clubs and play groups and anything else they can, even if they’d never joined any group before in their lives and they laughed at the idea of playdates. It’s a job that requires support beyond what a co-parent can do. And it is more difficult for men. Not because they can’t do the job, but because there is no social support for them, and there is even some antagonism and social penalties for them.

I say “them” speaking of all stay at home dads, but there are not many. This is partly because it’s a relatively new and revolutionary job for fathers. I mean, many people still won’t let little boys play with dolls, because god forbid they learn how to be good caregivers. So even though tons of moms have paying jobs outside the home, and dads these days are spending more of their time caring for their children than in generations past, there are not many stay at home dads. The number of stay at home dads in the US has doubled to a whopping 3% or so (not an incredible number, I know). In Mexico, the statistics for stay at home dads don’t even exist.* There are articles in Spanish about changing gender roles and things of that ilk, but they’re mostly based on the same information circulating in the U.S., with some vague mention of Mexico changing in some unspecified way. And in this part of Mexico, I’d bet money that Conan is this only stay at home dad for miles and miles around, at least from here to Oaxaca City, and maybe not even there. 

So our family decision for me to take this university-level teaching job as our sole income for now is bizarre and unheard of, even if it makes sense on other levels. It makes sense financially because my job skills are more in-demand here than Conan’s, and there’s not as much well-paying work for his skills here as there is in the US. Furthermore, it made sense to us because we don’t have family here who has time to watch Lucia if we both work, and there’s not much of an option for affordable daycare. But all that doesn’t matter or make real sense to many people around here; it’s ridiculous and degrading for Conan, in men’s eyes at least.

Even before I went off to work full-time, his friends (in Juquila, particularly) made fun of him for not being macho enough- although really they meant machista. The fact that he changed diapers and took responsibility for his baby in other ways was laughable to folks. Taking me, his female partner, into consideration when he made plans was also absurd for people from his town. He would either check in with me about going out or (gasp!) invite me (and usually the baby, by default) to go out with him wherever. All those cool points for bringing home a gringa got lost when someone saw him hanging our cloth diapers out to dry. Granted, Juquila is more conservative and close-minded than many other places, but in general in Oaxaca I have not found many men that change diapers, ever. Now, men in the U.S. aren’t standing in line to change diapers, either (who is, really?) but I think in my generation it is more expected as a norm for Daddy to share in that kind of work, even if Mommy is working at home full-time.

So Conan was a weird one from the get-go when he got back to Mexico, but now he’s sent his woman off to work while he takes care of the kid and the house. His friends are a little shocked, a little impressed, and a little weirded out by it. Two of his friends from high school told him they were even more surprised by him toting his toddler around on their lunch date because he was the only one of them in high school always insisting he would never get married or have kids. And here he is being the most involved dad.

This is how Conan and Lucia roll, out on the street in Puerto Escondido

 

People on the street stare shamelessly. Conan says if he’s out with a male friend and toting around Lucia it’s pretty much assumed he’s gay. It is shocking and strange to the women here, too, although I believe that he gets some compliments, encouragement, and definitely some flirtation and flattery because of it, too (which I wish I could see because I love it when he blushes). When he took Lucia to the health clinic for a vaccine, arriving with Lucia strapped to his chest in the Boba backpack, all of the other parents (which are moms only) stopped and stared in silence. Women on the street are always asking to hold Lucia or to take pictures with him and his adorable daughter, supposedly because Lucia’s so cute- although I suspect it’s for the Papi-daughter cuteness combo.

Conan is a trooper, and he mostly takes it all in stride, although I know it’s got to be hard for him. “They keep trying to kick me out of the macho club” he says when I ask him what other people think. I know he mostly doesn’t let it bother him, but people’s attitudes don’t help, either. We try to make sure his friends see us interacting as equals, show them that I don’t just come home from work and boss him around because I’m the one earning money. That men can do “women’s work” and women can play the “man’s role” without either one of us having to be a jerk to the other.

Not that Conan assumes all of the “women’s work” role, anyway. He is not a particularly domestic stay-at-home dad, although he does do more than his fair share of the cleaning. He hates to cook, so he does it only for survival (mostly for Lucia) and it usually involves eggs or pasta. He certainly doesn’t try to create multi-colored, flavorful, nutritionally-balanced meals all the time like I do (although the things he does bother cooking are delicious). He can’t wash dishes or clothes at the moment, because he’s had a weird rash that prevents him from getting his skin wet for long periods of time (convenient, right? Too bad I’ve seen that it’s legitimate). Mostly he runs errands and does yard work (both of which are labor-intensive around here), and takes care of Lucia.

Caring for our two year old is his most important job, and it’s what he does best, house-husband-wise. He is wonderfully patient (more than I most certainly) and sweet and affectionate and fun with Lucia. When she is having a melt down, he is the one who can make her giggle instead. When she is trying to refuse to bathe like every single night, he is the one who picks her up and dips her in, gently and calmly. I’m the one there trying to reason with her, offer her options, bribe her, distract her while I do it, and all of that fails. Along comes Papi and suddenly she’s showered and clean, hair and all (he calls the hair washing “the funny part”; he has a lot of good tactics). He’s the one that cut her fingernails when she was a baby, because I was too scared of cutting her. He’s the one that can make her fall asleep when I just want to pull out my hair. He is a wonderful, kind, ever-improving father, and I am so proud of him for that, no matter what else he does or doesn’t do.

This has been a process for me to adapt to, as well. I got to stay home with Lucia until she was one, and still didn’t work full-time till almost her second birthday. The first two days that I went off to work a whole eight hours (split into two parts, with a two and a half hour break in between), Lucia was Mommy-crazed. Her Mommy-deprivation came out as intense neediness; it was pure “Mommy hold you” (she still hasn’t learned to say “me”) every second I was home. I ate with her on my lap. I heated tortillas with her on my hip. I had to carry her with me to the potty. It was absurd, and I prayed for it to get better fast.

But be careful what you wish for, because I got it after that. Suddenly she decided she didn’t need me anymore. It was “no, Papi get the agua” and “Papi do it”  and shrieks of “Mommy no, Mommy no” all the time. After two years of me getting up with her every morning, she finally started to cry for Papi. Only Papi can get her milk and cereal now. She won’t even get out of the bed if I go to pick her up most of the time. (Unfortunately it’s not true justice because I still have to get up earlier than both of them to get to work, but, you know, that’s how these things go.)

And sometimes I feel horrible that Lucia and I get such a small amount of good, fun, pleasant time together now. Sometimes I feel like most of my time with her is spent arguing about bath time, or me cooking or washing dishes and half-paying attention, or other things I wouldn’t exactly call “quality time.” Sometimes I’m slightly jealous of Conan getting to do more fun stuff with her than I get to. But I think that it’s just the plight of all working parents. At least for now one of us is able to be with her all the time. At least she doesn’t end up with all of her fun with daycare staff, which would feel even more unfair. And regardless, it’s what I have to do right now. I have the luxury of turning off my mommy brain for eight hours a day and getting to focus on other things, interact with other people. It’s a luxury Conan doesn’t have for now.

So kicked out of the macho club or not, Conan is doing a fabulous job, being a responsible and loving man, being a fantastic father, and being a pioneer in gender equality here in Mexico. Even if his friends never really understand, hopefully his daughter will grow up appreciating how cool and brave her Papi is, and will reap some of the benefits of his revolutionary actions.

*If you find any stats on stay at home dads in Mexico, please let me know!

2 Responses to “The Frontiers of Fathering (or, “Kicked Out of the Macho Club”)”

  1. Julia Inman August 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm #

    Go, Conan! There’s nothing easy about gender roles anywhere, but I bet Mexico is much harder than the US. I used to get so annoyed when people used to tell Scott how incredible it was that he “babysat” for Elias on Scott’s Monday-off-day while I was at work. Really?

    • exiletomexico August 31, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

      Arrg yeah the whole “babysitting” your own child thing makes me CRAZY.
      Pretty proud of my Conan, for sure.

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