As Parents, Are Fathers the Second Sex?

For the NEW YORK TIMES: Ten months ago, my wife and I had our first child, a boy. He was born in London, where we’ve been living for nearly four years.

We’ve both been happy with the prenatal and postnatal health care services provided, and have been equally pleased with the day care center he’s been going to four days a week for the past four months.

But there’s one snag: even though I’m his father, I often feel invisible to the health and child care professionals who help care for our son. No matter how involved I am in his life, my wife is essentially treated as the priority parent.

Doctors, nurses and baby sitters don’t always pay attention to me, and sometimes dodge my questions entirely. Some of them have cut me off midsentence, and they often speak directly to my wife, even though I’m standing right there.

Part of me feels like a jerk for complaining about it. After all, my wife carried our child for 41 weeks, went through 43 hours of labor and had an emergency C-section. She’s is a wonderful, funny, devoted mom who spent six months on maternity leave with a colicky child who screamed. A lot. She found the necessary resources that helped us get our son into a sleeping and eating routine that has since transformed the three of us into a happy, relaxed, functioning family unit.

But being treated as a second-string parent is a struggle for me. My wife and I split baby duties 50/50, and I spend every Tuesday with him. I’m his primary caregiver when my wife takes work trips that have lasted up to 10 days. I feel like we’re on equal footing as parents. Despite ongoing stereotypes of dads as bumbling idiots who can’t change diapers, there has been a significant increase in the number of stay-at-home fathers in recent years. I’m constantly running into other fathers when I pick our son up at day care. So why are my wife and I not treated as equals?

It started during the pregnancy. During my wife’s scans and checkups, I would say things like, “Is this normal?” or “What does that mean, exactly?” or “I’ve noticed that …” But these questions and comments were often brushed aside.

A few days after our son was born, a midwife came by our flat for a routine visit and said he was malnourished and needed to go back to the hospital right away. She spoke directly to my wife, ignoring me entirely.

At day care, when our son falls on his head (it happens a lot; he’s desperate to walk) or develops a fever (also happens a lot; nurseries are germ factories), the staff members call my wife first. They see me more often than they see my wife, yet questions about sunscreen and diaper rash cream inevitably go to her first. Once, when they called me in the middle of a class I was teaching, I answered the call and they said, “We’ve tried calling your wife but can’t get through.” Seriously?

We give baby sitters both of our cell numbers before we leave, but it is my wife who gets texts like “He is fine, enjoy yourself!” or “He won’t stop crying, what should I do?” I’ve gotten texts from baby sitters only twice: once when my wife was out of town, and once when her phone was dead.

In the end I know it doesn’t really matter whom they call or text first. We’re both going to deal with the issues as they come. But to be so heavily involved in his life and yet feel so invisible at the same time is hard to get used to.

Leave a Reply