How would you react to a magazine piece expressing surprise at new-fangled inventions like the "hot tub” or the "cellphone"? How about a column concluding that this "Internet" thing is here to stay?
That's why, some years back, I was amazed to read a piece by an eminent writer--in The New Yorker, no less--about what was, to him, the astounding fact that many men's bathrooms included diaper-changing stations. And although we're more used to that now, I think we still have a ways to go in fully accepting men as parents on their own.
The newsletter At-Home Dads, edited by Peter Baylies, reported back then that 1.9 million American men stayed home with children. The most recent census at the time showed that, as expected, these figures were rising dramatically. Now I’ll admit that this number of stay-at-home dads--though it's a lot of guys--was a small percentage of the total population. But it was significant. Equally significant, I suppose, was the mere fact that stay-at-home fathers had their own newsletter. Stay-at-home dads had even appeared on day-time talk shows. And, thanks to Michael Keaton and company, we had our own movie--from which the general populace derived a name some of us don't much care for: Mr. Mom.
All of which made the eminent writer's piece on diaper-changing stations a little hard to figure. Where's this guy been? He admitted that his own children were grown and hadn't produced grandkids yet, and that he wasn't up on such things. So did that mean he avoided public restrooms? Can't that cause bladder problems? Even today there are plenty of men's bathrooms without changing stations, but it’d be pretty tough to miss them altogether, even back then.
And thank God for them, and the long-overdue changes in attitude they represented! I was the primary care-giver for my very young daughter, so the two of us were often in public together. If you know anything about kids, you know that their urinary timing is about as predictable as those complex phenomena scientists describe as "chaotic." I was raised Catholic, so escorting her into the ladies' room just isn't a option. And I'm not about to send her ANYWHERE alone--so the only alternative is to take her into the men's.
But then as now, some people still don't get it. One day as I stood by while she washed her hands in the men's at our local grocery store, an older guy came in, took one look at us, and hurried back out. As we emerged he fairly flew at me. "Get her out of there so I can use the bathroom!" he yelled. For once in my life I had a ready reply--not witty, you understand, but honest. "Haven’t you ever taken a kid somewhere?" I asked him dramatically. "What do you expect me to do--take her into the women's?" Apparently this caused some kind of mental gridlock in him; he just growled and pushed past us toward his curmudgeonly relief. I doubt if he noticed the diaper-changing station on the wall across from the urinals.
But the eminent writer had an eye for such novelties, and he thought them noteworthy enough to bruit about in The New Yorker. Next thing you know he's going to clue us in on "women's rights" or the difficult experiences of ethnic minorities.
Oh the other hand, maybe the problem here is with me. Perhaps I've paid such close attention simply because I'm part of this change in American life. After all, as a society we don't really see THAT many men taking on this new role, even still; if two million men wore tutus to the mall, people would definitely be more aware of a change in gender roles. (And don't kid yourself--far too many Americans still think men who stay home are pretty much equivalent to ballerinas).
But the majority of American women now work outside the home, and it's unlikely that huge numbers of them will return to full-time housewife-ing--even if an important American role-model, like, say, Lady Gaga, started wearing an apron in public. (For Gaga, I suppose, it might be only an apron). And our children will continue to be children--which means they need to be loved and cared for, need intense committed parenting. American men in general simply have to play a much fuller role in the lives of their families--not only because they should, but also for the immense personal benefits they themselves will begin to experience. The trend began all those years ago, and it continues to grow.
Maybe the eminent writer was correct in his assumption that many people don't really know about all this. Some still don't. So, hey--everybody! There are now diaper-changing stations in many men's bathrooms—can you believe it? And men, get ready—you can’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. (Take it from an old-timer: You really should roll up your sleeves).
And don't act all squeamish. After all--this is a guy thing now!
Tim J. Myers is the author of Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood, publishing May 12, 2013 from Familius.