By Jacob Lambert
I am not a particularly manly fellow. For instance, I just used the word "fellow." That's not manly at all. Worse, I do most of the cooking in my house, and am actually pretty good at it. Not counting High Sierra, I haven't seen an action movie in years. I'm not especially interested in football. I do the laundry every so often, water the plants when I think of it.
It wasn't always this way. Before my wife came along, domesticating whip in hand, I could barely make oatmeal. I watched a grainy VHS copy of Predator every few months, usually late at night, usually drunk. I followed the NFL scrupulously. Clean clothes were for dandies, houseplants for the elderly biddies.
Yet despite this transformation--some might say neutering--a few of my male qualities have survived. I hate shopping; when my wife drags me into a store, I lean against the wall and wish that I was dead. When she's watching Glee or Gossip Girl, I flee to our house's geographic opposite. And when I see a man pushing a stroller, I feel as if something is amiss, as if I've just seen a three-legged dog. I rarely have a fully-formed reaction to such men, but there is a reaction--and at the heart of it is a question: shouldn't a woman be doing that?
Until recently, my answer would have been a resounding "probably." But my perspective shifted last March, when my wife gave birth to our first child. All the clichés applied: Conor was impossibly small, extremely adorable; we were thrilled by his arrival. But in addition to making me a proud, somewhat unprepared father, our son would change me in another way. My wife is a high-school teacher; I am a freelance writer, working from home. Unless she quit her job--a financial impossibility--I would have to care for him until he was ready for preschool. Our parents would help out a few days each week; otherwise, I was doomed to become one of those dads I'd seen on the street, fumbling with a bag of Cheerios. Younger men would now be free to give me a sideways glance, wonder where my wife was. I tried not to think about it.
In the days after my wife returned to work, I did my best to adjust. I heated the milk, wiped the butt, tried to get some work done. Aside from the occasional botched nap or errant urine spritz, things went fairly well. But I dreaded the stroller; surely, I'd look like a much hairier Mary Poppins. All I'd need was a black umbrella and some idiotic songs.
In general, I like to believe that I don't care what other people think of me--or, more accurately, what I think other people think of me. Of course, I do care, even if most slights are imagined. And in Philadelphia--the town of Pete Dexter and Chuck Bednarik, Tex Cobb and David Goodis--how could I walk around with a lime-green Bumbleride, diaper and "ba-ba" at hand, and not feel embarrassed? Emasculated?
As it turns out, wheeling Conor around has made me feel self-conscious, but in a surprisingly enjoyable way. Aside from one instance of minor, but definite, mocking--from a small herd of South Street troglodytes--any attention I've received as a pram-pusher has been overwhelmingly pleasant. In the supermarket, there are smiles and questions about his age. At the veterinarian's, the receptionist coos and burbles. Our dry cleaner squeezes a thigh and says, "Ooh, he's nice and fat." Barely a block goes by without a nod, a grin or some sort of acknowledgement.
This flood of attention has forced me open. It used to take an unusually good mood for me to speak to a stranger--and even then, I'd feel somewhat ill at ease. I'd need weeks to build a comfortable small-talk routine with a clerk or cashier. But Conor, in addition to taking away my ability to sleep, had also ripped off my protective public shell. I had previously walked with eyes averted, careful not to look at any one person for too long. But with a babbling butterball in tow, such distancing became useless. There was now no option but to smile back, to stop and talk, and I found it satisfying. After all, who doesn't like to discuss their own children?
My son had ushered me into an alternate Philadelphia in which people were happy to see one another, paused to chat with strangers. As a fan of an idealized past--of sepia-toned photos and black-and-white films--the idea of a more genteel world appeals to me. And, incredibly, all that I needed to get there was a baby and a stroller. Supposedly, three-legged dogs are perfectly content. It just might be true.
Jacob Lambert is a writer who pushes his stroller mostly in