The Complements of Strangers

By CL Bledsoe

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Strangers come up to me when they see me with my daughter — always older women — and compliment me:

“You’re such a good dad.”

“You’re great with her.”

This sounds like a humblebrag, but it’s actually kind of puzzling. The first time a stranger complemented me, it freaked me out. I wasn’t doing anything special. I was maybe doing something bad. We were at a restaurant. I had just bribed my daughter with a cookie (promised for afterward) to get her to eat her broccoli. It seemed a draw, at best, certainly not a shining moment of parenting. I was, frankly, embarrassed that someone saw it. A good parent wouldn’t have to bribe their child, I thought.

This sounds like classic impostor syndrome, but I wouldn’t give myself that much credit... What I eventually realized was that I was being complimented because I was male and taking interest in my child’s life. That’s it. That’s all I had to do. The bar was really that low. I saw women all the time doing way more, but nobody was impressed by them. If my daughter had a coat on in the rain, people were falling all over themselves to praise me.

I’m making a leap, here. I know men who are great fathers, dedicated, present parents. I’ve known quite a few who weren’t, though. My own father asked me my own age on more than one occasion and didn’t know if I’d graduated high school when I was 17. I once ran away from home for a week, and he didn’t notice. But he’s maybe an outlier, for reasons I won’t go into. Women are just expected to be good mothers, regardless of whatever they’re going through. A man being a good father is noteworthy, especially men of a certain age. Which is a harsh indictment of fatherhood.

But as long as my child isn’t on fire, hey, I’m doing a good job (for a man). This makes me sad because I know it’s an earned stereotype. We can talk about how passé gender roles are all day, and I know someone’s going to #notallmen me, but the reality is that women have historically done the lion’s share when it comes to parenting. (Fun fact: female lions actually do the ‘lion’s share’ of work in prides. Males are expected to ‘protect’ the pride and help bring down big game, but lionesses do most of the hunting…and everything else.)

When I was growing up, the idea of a man being that involved in his kid’s life was not only unheard-of but would’ve been considered strange and maybe unsavory. More than once, even nowadays, women have given me very dirty looks when they saw me shopping for clothes for my daughter without her, (what did they think was happening?) so some of that’s still around.

Men were supposed to be distant. Some would say this is changing, and I hope that’s true. I’m trying to change it in myself. I honestly prefer my daughter’s company to most people, but I’m kind of distant by nature. The bottom line is that my daughter should be able to rely on me unconditionally, regardless of my gender. That’s what I strive for. Of course, I don’t always live up to it. But I try, every day.

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