I HAD just finished my associate editor’s duties for the regular sports section and was about to close a special issue when I decided to take a break and grab a bite. It was 9 in the evening and there were a couple of fastfood joints still open, just a few blocks away from the office.
I walked to one of them, stood in line to order food and then carried my tray to a nearby long table. I stabbed a plastic straw into a large cup of orange juice, sprinkled a little salt over the fries and was peeling the greasy wrap off my burger when I vaguely noticed two other people share my long table. As I dug my teeth into the burger, I fished my phone out of my pocket, swiped off the locked screen and tapped on my photos app. As I always do when having dinner alone, I scrolled through pictures of Isay. Isay smiling. Isay sleeping. Isay raising a fist.
I was probably smiling like an idiot because one of the people at my table leaned back and caught a glimpse of my phone.
“Yup, my first,” I told him. His female companion forked a piece of chicken into her mouth, smiled and looked at me.
I tend to be socially awkward in situations like this so when there was the slightest hint of uncomfortable dead air, I flipped the phone around to give them a view of the photo on the screen. Isay pointing to her nose.
“Cute,” the female said, more perfunctory than sincere.
“So why are you still here?” the man asked.
The two of them were wearing what looked like white lab coats so I presume they were doctors. Although the nearest hospital was a short drive away and there were dozens of food places closer to them. House call perhaps? Couple on their way home?
“Work,” I said, taking a sip of orange juice.
“Man, if I had a kid like that, I’d be so in a hurry to get home! You should be on your way now,” he said.
“I wish. I’m just about to begin working, in fact,” I replied.
“You’re quite the opposite of most of my friends who are dads. They’d always be eager to go home. They’d never stay out this late because they want to spend time with their daughter,” he said.
I detected a sprinkle of condescension in his voice, about the same amount as the salt I sprayed on my fries. But my suspicion grew when the two of them looked at each other with a palpably dismissive shrug. It’s hard enough as it is to have anxiety disorder and watch two people being so judgmental about you with highly perceptible non-verbal talk. What starts out as a dot of paranoia grows into a ball of outward pointing pins that snowballs and snowballs until the icy tips push against the insides of your skin.
It’s even more difficult when you know you can’t defend yourself. “Actually…” you begin to say, pausing and then discontinuing the thought altogether. There is no one else to stand up for you and any he-said-she-said argument would end up with two people thinking they know the truth and you utterly hurt at the wrong accusation.
I smiled at them, bowed and fingered my fries mindlessly, settling my phone on the tray and staring at the photo on the screen while finishing the rest of my meal. Isay with teary eyes during her first vaccine shot.
I crumpled the burger wrap, sipped the remaining orange juice and lifted my tray. I pushed the box of fries into a paper bag so I’d have something to munch while working. I excused myself with a smile and a slight bow, walked off and settled the tray above the trash bin before walking back to the office.
I badly wanted to tell them that I usually leave the house by 1 p.m. but that since Isay was born, I now leave at 3 p.m. or sometimes even 4 p.m. Or that I wake up at 6 a.m. so I can burp Isay after my wife feeds her before she goes to work. And that after burping we walk together in the park for her sunshine bath. and that we spend an entire morning together singing songs, napping or reading books. Or that I drive home as fast as I can no matter what time I finish at work, battling it out with beastly trucks in curving highways for concrete space, so I can get home, shower off quickly and lie down beside her in bed.
Or that no matter how sleepy I am, I stay awake until her first of her pre-dawn, past-midnight feeding sessions so I can be the one to burp her and rock her to sleep. I may not be a typical “doctors’ friends” type of dad but I do think I am pretty much excited and eager to be home to hold my daughter and to have people judge me wrongly over one late-night dinner is just unfair. If only there was someone who knew me who could have stood up for me right there.
But I guess that’s one of the things dads face regularly. When it comes to the children, moms are saints and superheroes. No matter how dads try, they will always be at the raw end of people’s judgments. We go out with friends too much. We work too much. We don’t work enough. And being someone already with a gnawing fear of inadequacy, that really sucks. Because of all the imperfect dads in the world, I’ll always feel I’m at the bottom of the list.
So let me say this to all of you misunderstood dads.
Continue what you do to make life better for your children. Do not let yourselves be defined by people’s judgment of you. I know how you feel. I know how it is to be wrongly painted and having no one to correct the wrong impression. I know you’re all out there, grinding, fumbling, sometimes hitting the jackpot, most of the times stumbling. But I know whatever you do, your intentions are golden. Everything for your precious child/children. And wherever you are, you guys are heroes to me—judgmental doctors be damned.