Washington - When my wife returned to work after parental leave, I took my first trip to the shop with two children, not knowing I would return home feeling like a hero.
On a Monday morning, I pushed the green cart with flame decals through the second set of sliding doors and toward the deli. My three-year-old son was strapped in the seat and my three-month-old son was wrapped against my chest. As a stay-a-home father, strolling through the store, I felt conflicting emotions - love for caring for my sons and frustration with being an unemployed 37-year-old dad.
At the deli, I exchanged pleasantries with a young woman behind the counter and ordered a pound of sliced turkey breast. I was immediately surrounded by a group of female employees. They leaned close to admire my infant son as he raised his bald head from the green cloth wrap.
"I never could get mine to like the wrap," one said.
"I bet ya'll have so much fun together," another said.
"You are the best dad ever," said another.
I swelled with pride. Maybe they are right, maybe I am the best dad ever. I soaked in the praise before tossing my sliced turkey into the cart and heading toward the produce. As I strolled, more comments came from fellow shoppers and I absorbed them, giving little thought to the reason I merited heightened attention.
"Nice baby wearing," a young woman said.
"That is one way to keep 'em warm," said an elderly woman.
"Man, you are taking this dad thing to the next level," said a bag boy at checkout.
The series of verbal high-fives inflated my ego and, after receiving the receipt from the cashier, I smiled and pushed our flaming green cart through the sliding doors like a rock star walking offstage. I had no clue I was benefiting from male privilege.
If you believe in gender equality, it is not hard to understand why it is problematic to place one gender on a pedestal for doing the bare minimum, while the other bears the bulk of the child care. Not only is it unfair, but it also does not serve the best interests of families, and can place stress on them when parenting roles are unbalanced. For men who value gender equality and healthy families, assisting in lowering the pedestal is imperative.
Men can make the effort to closely listen to women to understand how they perceive male privilege. And, most importantly, we need to believe them. Maybe you remain skeptical that a pedestal effect exists for fathers. Ask a mother if she believes fathers benefit from undeserved praise. Her answer might surprise you. Men get attention and praise for doing work women do every day.
Raising awareness and listening are important steps, but I also wanted to know how to best respond when given undeserved attention.
I want to do a better job of stepping off the pedestal and challenging sexist beliefs about parenting. I want to better align myself with the women who have been doing this work for generations and assist them in creating more balanced roles within families. And I want to share the most important lesson I've learned while reflecting on this issue, which is that not only should I do this work because it is the right thing to do, but also because I need it.
Men need to be liberated from the rigid forms of masculinity that create a pedestal in the first place. Only when we step off them can we hope to be free.