Men in general are assumed to be depraved until proven otherwise. When it comes to gender discrimination, nobody mentions the rather disconcerting stereotype that men are especially likely to be foul in some way or another, and being a good father, demonstrating the ability to love and nurture children, doesn't allow an escape from this sinister suspicion.
More generally there is the persistent notion that fathers have their place in this world – the office – but when it comes to matters of how their children will be raised, dads are not to intervene. They are incompetent parents at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Mums call the shots, and any deviation from these rules of engagement is punishable in a variety of ways, something I was confronted with one Monday afternoon.
I was shopping in a department store. Given the time and day of the week, the store was relatively lacking in shoppers, and almost all of the ones there, except me, were women. I hadn't really planned to shop. Indeed, single parents rarely have the luxury of planning anything. Rather, what happens is that some unexpected circumstance affords a sudden opportunity to go shopping. In this case it was the cancelation of a 1.30 meeting that gave me a 2 hour window after lunch.
Another thing about being a single parent is that one rarely shops for a specific thing or even category of things. One chains together multiple shopping trips to take advantage of a precious opportunity. In this case, I knew both my kids needed clothes, but it was also time to do some grocery shopping, which meant I would have to swing by the house on the way back to work to put spoilable foods in the frig or freezer. For this same reason, I would have to buy the clothes first. I decided to start with my 3-year old girl.
Now one of the limitations of this approach to shopping is that one doesn't always have a list of needed items when the opportunity to shop arises. You have to rely on memory quite a bit. One thing I remembered from the previous week was having to do a load of laundry because my daughter was running low on undies, and I wasn't sure I would make it through the school week. So girl's undies seemed like a good place to start shopping.
But no sooner had I started then I became aware of a presence. I was being watched. I looked over my shoulder at an approaching security guard who said. "Excuse me, but what are you doing?" "I'm buying clothes for my daughter," I answered, somewhat surprised. "Don't you have a job?" he asked. "Yes, I do!" I responded, this time with some anger in my voice, as I became aware of what was happening and why. "Okay, okay," he replied and moved away.
What I became aware of was that the security guard simply could not imagine a father shopping for his child's clothes. He saw a pervert. If a working mum had been doing the same thing for the same reason, I seriously doubt there would have been any intervention at all. When I told some male colleagues with young children about the episode, one responded that he never shops for his daughter's clothes without a female around for exactly that reason. I was stunned to hear this, and the entire experience triggered a series of questions in my mind.
First, why was I compelled to go shopping for my daughter's clothes on a Monday afternoon in the first place? Would the same thing have happened on a Saturday afternoon, a more plausible part of the week for dads to shop for their little girls' clothes? Why do I have to juggle my responsibilities as a parent and an employee, and what does this say about the assumptions society makes about the "proper" roles and responsibilities of mothers and fathers?
Why can't I buy clothes for my 3-year old girl, or any 3-year old girl for that matter? Why do fathers find it necessary to have women along to make these purchases? Are we incapable of selecting girls' undies, or are we all assumed to be Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita until we can establish otherwise? Sounds like gender discrimination to me.