Daddy Handbook: Daddy, What’s That?
Steven J. Moss
While shopping with two-year-old Sara at a local mall, I had to pee. Since I couldn’t leave her by herself, I ushered her into the men’s room, keeping her close by as I stood at the urinal next to another patron.
As I relieved myself Sara pointed towards my crotch and asked, “What’s that Daddy?”
I glanced nervously at the man standing next to me. He seemed to be engaged in his own pursuits.
“That’s called a penis,” I said, in a voice that I hoped signaled the end of the conversation.
“Can I touch it?” Sara asked.
“Wait until we get home,” I whispered back, though that wasn’t exactly what I meant.
The man standing next to me zipped up and walked away. I did the same, washed my hands, and ushered Sara out of the restroom.
Until Sara reached adolescence, I frequently had to troubleshoot bathroom visits when nature called her or me during an outing. Since I couldn’t use the women’s room, when she had to go I’d take her into a stall in the men’s room. She mostly didn’t mind. In fact, until Sara was in kindergarten she was convinced that she was actually a boy. More than once she asked Debbie or me “when’s my penis going to grow?” For a couple of years my running joke with other new parents was that Sara could be whatever gender she wanted, but I wasn’t going to pay for any operations.
Occasionally, Sara would refuse to go with me to the men’s room — which tend to be stinky and sticky — forcing me to hold it until we got home. Once, after we’d dined at an IHOP on Lombard Street, I badly needed to relieve myself. But no matter what I said I couldn’t cajole Sara to come with me.
“I’ll stay here,” she insisted, as she used the complimentary crayons to color the paper placemat she’d been given.
I looked around the restaurant, which was sparsely populated with tourists, the elderly, and another family or two. The bathroom was behind the kitchen and down a hallway. Thoughts of baby snatchings popped into my head. Still, I really had to go.
“Wait right here. Don’t go anywhere, no matter what,” I said firmly.
“Okay,” Sara smiled at me, looking like she’d just been given the keys to a new sports car.
I ran to the bathroom, looking behind me to keep an eye on Sara as long as possible. I went in. The door automatically closed behind me. I pulled it back open and strode down the hallway far enough to see Sara. I could see the top of her head, her brownish-red hair looking like a messy nest, as she bent over her drawing. I went back into the men’s room. The door closed behind me. I walked to the urinal and unzipped my pants.
“Shoot,” I muttered to myself, nervously. I zipped my pants back up and strode out of the bathroom. Sara was still coloring. I went back to the bathroom, and finally finished my business.
After Sara turned five she began to embrace her girl identity, and completely balked at going into the men’s room. The shark was jumped, so to speak, when, after a couple of years of doing so, she refused to get dressed in the boy’s bathroom at the swimming class I took her to in Half Moon Bay.
I couldn’t blame her for not wanting to use that bathroom, regardless of its gender designation. It was cramped, the toilet and shower stalls located hard on the small dressing area, the floors swampy with pool and shower water. At least I hoped that it was only water. Even I disliked it. Meanwhile, a peek at the girl’s room indicated an ample-sized, carpeted dressing area well separated from the toilets.
The problem was, Sara refused to get dressed alone. She wanted me to help her. After we argued about it, I convinced myself that I was simply doing a father’s duty, and went into the girl’s room with her.
We put our belongings down on one of the benches, and Sara got into her bathing suit. A younger girl started to chat us up, asking where we got Sara’s goggles, and what ribbon — the school awarded different colored stripes for various milestones — she was working on. All around us, though, girls older than Sara and their mothers were nervously eyeing me. The air began to feel heavy. I suddenly became aware that I was in, well, the girl’s dressing room. I had infiltrated the “iron stall,” going to a place no man is supposed to go. After Sara had finished, we gathered our stuff and hurried out.
As I watched Sara’s swimming lesson, one of the facility’s teenage clerks walked up to me.
“Mr. Moss, the manager wants to speak with you.”
I followed the young woman to the reception area. As I approached a 30-something Asian-American woman who’d been talking to the manager, and who I recognized from the girl’s room, gave me a sharp glance, and scuttled away.
“Mr. Moss,” said the manager, as I stood at the counter, “you can’t go into the girl’s room. You’ll need to get your daughter dressed in the boy’s bathroom.”
“My daughter doesn’t want to get dressed there anymore. She’s a girl.”
“I understand, but you can’t go into the girl’s room.”
“But she can’t get dressed without my help.” I stared at the manager. She stared back at me. A co-worker, who’d been listening to the conversation, stepped up.
“Why don’t you get dressed in the workout room? No one goes in there anyway.”
And that’s what happened. For the next several months, before and after each Friday afternoon class, we’d go into the small, unused, workout room, and unpack Sara’s clothes. She’d get dressed standing between the bench press and the stair master.
The space was ample, and private. But something about it felt awkward. Sara didn’t like being segregated into this weighty no-man’s land. It made her feel like she was different than her swim classmates. She wasn’t a girl, getting dressed with her mom; or a boy with his dad. She was a daughter who changed her clothes with her daddy, something the swimming school, and the parents who took their children there, had signaled wasn’t quite right, or at least not normal.
We didn’t discuss it, but before long, though Sara was still two ribbons short of graduating, we stopped going to swimming lessons. And then she stopped going into men’s rooms altogether. We haven’t been into one since.
Handbook Tips: How to Avoid Changing Diapers
—You may not have noticed, since using a urinal can make them almost a hands-free experience, but public restrooms are nasty. You’ll want to shield your loved ones from their worst offenses. Double wrap the toilet seat with those paper jobbies that are generally available. Remember, whatever your baby touches, eventually reaches her mouth, and then yours.
—Get a cool “diaper bag” — check out the bicycle messenger bags at Rickshaw or Sports Basement — and make sure to always stow the key equipment: wipes, hand sanitizer, an extra diaper or two, and a fifth of your beverage of choice, which can serve as both an antiseptic and personal calmative in a pinch.
—There’s going to be a lot of poop: up to five times a day, for more than two years. The best way to avoid having to deal with it is not being around when it happens. Carefully study your baby’s behavior to discover their tell. It could be a certain kind of grimace, or maybe a low grunting sound. Then, when it appears, don’t panic. Just nonchalantly find a way to get out of there. A few possibilities: “Honey, I’m going out to get you some flowers, you deserve it!” Or, if that takes too long, “I just forgot, I left the car running!”
This is an excerpt from The Daddy Handbook, a book by View editor Steven Moss, sections from which will appear in the paper throughout 2014. He’s looking for a publisher for this work. Fellow parents are encouraged to write in with their experiences: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Month's Stories