In theory, my daughter has two parents who are responsible for her education. In practice, it turns out she only has one: me, her mother.
Not this year, though. This year, I’m starting the school year off right by reminding my daughter’s school that her father not only exists, but he, too, can volunteer, receive emails, and be hounded to join the PTA.
The welcome e-mails and new teacher greetings started to arrive in my inbox before school started. Not this year, I thought. I am going to do something. Make myself clear. My response would be short and to-the-point.
Dear Ms. Principal:
We are looking forward to the upcoming school year. Please add [my daughter’s father] to your email list for communication. It’s important to us as a family that he receives all school-wide communication moving forward.
I clicked “send.”
I felt empowered and relieved. This year there would be no red carpet for my partner whenever he showed his face at our daughter’s school. No fawning or overzealous greetings from a gaggle of educators who were thrilled an actual D-A-D graced us with his presence. My micro-activism put everyone on notice: I am not the only face responsible for the Henry family.
In many ways, the assumption that I am the standard bearer of the success or failure of our daughter’s education annoys my partner as much as it does me, boxing us into neat little traditional gender roles. Whenever I am present, he’s invisible. The raucous dad applause quickly dies after the introduction phase and he’s left a mumbling shell of a participant. No one looks at him, no one asks him for his thoughts — he might as well have skipped the meeting altogether.
Yet, if he does get a word in, the fawning begins anew. His words carry weight, his ideas are earth-shattering, he is like the Second Coming. It’s enough for me to puff out my feminist killjoy chest and sigh at the sexist rigmarole of gender politics and parent-teacher conferences. It’s also a time for me to feel more than slightly envious that low expectations come with the kind of encouragement mothers the world over never experience. No one ever forgives mothers; dads just need to show up.
Fathers show up for their children in all kinds of ways, now. There are stay-at-home dads and PTA dads and diaper-changing dads and dads who blog. There are dads who teach their girls to skateboard and dads who guide their sons through sewing. Homer, for all intents and purposes, is largely gone from the lexicon of modern American fatherhood.
As the child of a divorced couple, I lived full-time with my father. He was the one who attended parent-teacher conferences, he was the one who cooked dinners while coaching my softball team and signed every report card. Having an active and engaged father in my life, at this point, is passe. The bar for me was set high a long time ago. Fathers deserve as much coddling as mothers receive, and that would be zero.
This is why I sent the e-mail. I almost want my daughter’s school to think of me as an after-thought. Like, you know, they think about her father. Let’s turn the tables. What would a school year look like if I was treated like a dad? It would look like a great school year, that’s what it would look like. There would be zero expectations. I would get to walk into every situation feeling like a million bucks, like a best-dressed Academy Award winner. There would be no pressure for me to do anything, say anything, be held accountable. That’s his job. He’s the press secretary for this family. He’ll field questions and dole out answers. I will nod politely, forgotten, until I say something. And if I do, it will be heard.
But it’s all a fantasy. I have to settle for a compromise. Instead of lowering the school’s standards, we have to raise them. My partner must receive emails. He must be given the opportunity to be acknowledged as the active and engaged parent he is. We are not co-parents, we are parents. When I am asked to volunteer, I’ll give out his e-mail. When the principal looks at me to lead a PTA meeting, I’ll say “not me.”
Because when I did that, another dad jumped into the fray. “We’re meeting next week at the same time, same place,” he shouted as parents left the building.
Great job, I thought, and kept it to myself.