Prolegomena To a Theory of Mom Behavior

March 6, 2009


Half the time I don’t feel too weird about being the only dad in my son’s parent-tot nursery school class. The other half of the time I freak out.

The half of the time I’m not freaking out, I’m thinking Hey, you’re a person with a kid, I’m a person with a kid, you’ve got a back story, I’ve got a back story, we’re here for an hour-and-a-half and we’re both human beings so let’s share some tips and then get down on the floor and insert ourselves into the storyline playing out on the plastic Fisher Price parking garage.

The half of the time I’m freaking out, on the other hand, I’m feeling like I’ve accepted the invitation to someone’s church or temple or otherwise non-specific place of worship, which is fine, but when people start standing and sitting and shouting and chanting when you’re not expecting it then it starts to make you nervous because you don’t know what the hell’s going on and you wind up leaving with a headache and perhaps even cursing whatever the religion was that you were aping unsuccessfully.

Shortly after Spot was born I bought a t-shirt that read I Love Hot Moms, construing it primarily as a statement of affection for my post-partum wife, but also in some subconscious way as an assertion of my mojo and its continued existence: that things were still cooking under the lid, that even as an at home dad in a sea of moms, utterly subordinated to the starving animal that I had sired, even far beneath the weighty surface layers of parental rationality and obligations, the fires of Eros still crackled.

I’ve never worn that t-shirt. The t-shirt I should have bought, which I now know would have much greater social utility, is one that would read I Have a Penis: Will You Be My Friend? At the playground and at parent-tot class, this t-shirt would just put it out there, the existential structure of the I-Thou interface would be delineated in almost contractural fashion, and then people/moms, and maybe even people/dads too, could make up their minds to sign-on or not, and then we could all get on with our vicarious toddling without having to worry about all the implications that go along with one adult in the room having a penis when the others don’t.

Because there are implications, aren’t there? My wife thinks I’m making this all too complicated, and perhaps she’s right. Having gone to an all girl’s high-school, and been active in a sorority in college, she’s certain she has it figured out: women socialize in packs. The group is instrumental, and being left out of it is like being cast away on an iceberg when the tribe paddles to a new fishing ground. When the stakes are this high, once they’ve made it in then the next batch of newcomers is mercilessly policed. This is why the moms tend to supervise their toddlers, rather than play with them, standing back (rather than down on the floor) to deliberately empathize and sympathize among themselves about all the life-issues that I generally also empathize and sympathize about, without necessarily being inclined to schmoose about them.

A vignette from my field notes illustrates the point: Mom X is part of a couple that we socialize with, who had her boy about 6 months after we did. Mom X is very laid back, supportive, and warm, and we all get along. In the months before Mom X was due she began to strategize about socially surviving motherhood and with steely-eyed deliberation declared that she Needed to Get a Group of Mom-Friends, she Wanted to Make Sure They Weren’t Weirdos, and that she has Figured Out Where to Get Them.

By and large she has succeeded. And by and large this is the polar opposite of how I operate. I don’t have a strong desire to seek out other dads who are also primary care givers, the same way my gay friends don’t necessarily want to date or even hang out with everyone they know who is gay. If I manage to extract one true friend a year out of the voluminous slurry and dross of social life, I’m happy. If they happen to know what it’s like to be the point-man for potty training, well, that’s a plus, but not a prerequisite. But I find that most of the time what I want to talk about is the stuff I don’t get to talk about with Spot, like collateralized debt obligations, James Bond, the paleontological significance of Tiktaalik roseae, or Gertrude Stein. And when that isn’t working, I change into my fantasy partner costume and start naming all the stuffed animals.


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