Two weeks ago, I posted about a group of dads I met. The group meets every month to talk about parenting stuff. Many of us are stay-at-home dads (referred to as SAHDs, pun fully and unfortunately intended). That status offers us unique perspectives of fathering many career-minded fathers who spend little time at home can’t fully appreciate.
Perspectives like a heightened, daily appreciation of the true challenges of raising a child, especially a boy with special needs. Knowing what it is to sit with him every single afternoon to complete his homework. How frustrating it is to get his cooperation. Understand intimately what triggers his mood swings or upsets him, but also that no two afternoons are exactly the same. To stay nimble all the time and find new, creative ways to placate the child just enough to finish his homework.
Perspectives like how society discriminates, and a female healthcare professional sees you as the secondary caregiver. Even when you are the primary, or at least the “co-primary” caregiver, along with your spouse.
Wait what? Ignored by a female healthcare professional? How, you ask?
Let me explain using a recent incident I encountered.
But first, a little background.
The Trouble with Drooling
One of my autistic son C’s biggest special needs challenges is excessive drooling. He had been drooling continuously since he was a baby (he’s now 12-and-a-half years old). We’ve lost count of how many wet bibs and tee shirts he’s had over the years. Up until he was nine, my dear son was still wearing a bib to school.
Although it’s gotten better in the last three years, his drooling is still an issue. Left unchecked as he enters his teenage years, it’s not hard to imagine all the merciless teasing C will get if this issue isn’t nipped in the bud pronto!
We tried for years to pin down the cause. Maybe he’s got weak jaw muscles? Regular lip exercises to strengthen them should do the trick. They didn’t, though we still get him to do them now. Another possibility was Ankyloglossia, which refers to those born with tongue-tied ness that limits tongue movements. That could be cured with surgery. (Thankfully we confirmed subsequently that wasn’t what C had).
Maybe it was excessive secretion by the salivatory glands? That could be sorted out with invasive surgery or long-term medication, though there are possible side effects like weight loss or worse, cognitive impairment. Or maybe, he just has the bad habit of not closing his lips fully.
Whatever the case, our job as parents is the same since time immemorial: shoot down all possibilities til we find the silver bullet.
And that’s how we ended up a few weeks ago at the doorstep of the ENT clinic in the local children’s hospital.
SAHDs aren’t primary caregivers — talk to the moms!
Referred by C’s PD from the Child Development Clinic at our local children’s hospital, we made an appointment last month to see the Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) specialist there. We wanted to rule out any breathing irregularities that might be the cause of his drooling.
Arriving, we waited for about 15 minutes before we were ushered into the ENT doctor’s clinic. There, the female ENT doctor immediately launched into an explanation of what she believed we needed to consider and look into.
Now to be clear, this isn’t a new scenario for us. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many consultant doors we’ve walked through, thanks to C’s various unique challenges. Whether it’s about motor skills, speech, diet, or psychological tests, we’ve seen more than our fair share.
But for this appointment, I started for the first time to pay closer attention to something that likely happened a million times before. The consultation exchange between doctor and patient. Or in this case the patient’s caregivers.
You see, the whole time the ENT specialist was talking, my son C sat, while my wife and I stood facing the doc. However, throughout her explanation, the doc had her eyes squarely fixed on my wife’s face. No one else’s.
It was as if my wife was the only parent in the room!
A Harsh Reality All SAHDs Face
One of the topics raised in the last couple of meetings I attended with the father group I mentioned earlier, was how women and stay home moms view SAHDs with some suspicion. Many dads shared experiences of how women in various settings, from supermarkets to kindergartens, slighted them.
One dad in his 40s shared how a female middle-aged supermarket staff called him a “housewife”! She saw him regularly on his morning grocery runs and guessed that he was unemployed. Another dad, in his 30s, talked about the times he tried to strike up conversations with other parents. These were mostly moms he met when he fetched his kid from the nursery. Sadly, they paid him no heed unaccustomed as they were to interacting with SAHDs. Yet another dad shared how a nurse kept poking her head around him to look for his wife, incredulous that he was the only parent accompanying his kid to the children’s hospital.
Unfortunately, these weren’t one-off examples, going by head nods around our circle of dads during the meeting, as we listened empathetically to each anecdote recounted.
In an NPR article in 2018, social isolation was identified as one huge challenge for SAHDs. That article made clear women have unintentionally helped fuel this phenomenon. Given that men aren’t as ready as women to huddle and commiserate, such personal encounters can only exacerbate the loneliness and isolation SAHDs feel. And in a research paper published here three years ago, many SAHDs interviewed still see themselves as subservient to their wives on all things related to caregiving.
This is the harsh reality all SAHDs experience, and as I see it, this form of discrimination can only cease when…
…SAHDs band together to advocate for ourselves
So I’m really grateful for this fathers group and I certainly hope that our monthly meetings will continue. That we can support one another to weather the challenges for SAHDs and other active caregiving fathers who feel marginalized in similar ways.
And maybe enter into conversations in the social space of “equal-status” parenting, by advocating whenever the need arises. Or when faced with an episode of discrimination.
Like what I experienced with that ENT specialist.
After our session was over, my wife and son exited the consultation room. I, on the other hand, lingered behind to speak my mind.
I told the ENT doc that in the future, she should address herself to both parents, not just one. She shouldn’t assume I’m the father who is only there to hold the child’s hand and stay in the background. She should accord me the respect due a primary caregiver. Or, at the very least, a co-parent with equal, if not superior, knowledge as my wife about any and everything about our son.
That the doc was surprised by my candor was an understatement. (Then again, I was just as surprised at my sudden decision to speak up!) She recovered in time to defend herself, assuring me she had no intentions to exclude me. For me though, I hoped the experience surfaced unconscious discriminatory behavior on her part. Or at least a precious learning moment for her, and her assistant too, who witnessed our exchange.
But now that I’ve boldly spoken up in an actual face-to-face encounter, I have to keep the momentum going.
I must continue to champion the rights of SAHDs everywhere to be treated like the legitimate primary caregivers that we are.
So here’s to the raw and unfinished journey of SAHDs to be accepted and respected in society someday.
And it starts when each of us speaks up.