“This one comes in black. Do you like it?”
My wife and I, searching for a diaper bag both of us wouldn’t mind carrying, had stumbled upon a weird corner of the internet devoted to helping men tote infant-sized absorbent pads — with, um, military precision. The diaper bag my wife had found online featured army-style construction, modular pockets and MOLLE-style straps. I thought it was kinda cool, but — “Maybe it’s a little ‘Call of Duty’ cosplay?” Back to the drawing board.
A diaper bag is more than its contents. It’s a responsibility. It means the person who schleps it around has signed up to handle anything from your standard pee to the soul-crushing, outfit-ruining mess of a poopsplosion. And while there are many dads who take on the primary care role — dads in same-sex couples, stay-at-home-dads and dads taking time off for parental leave — it’s usually Mom carrying the bag.
Fashion reflects this divide. Women are marketed trendy, elegant bags that enforce diaper duty as a mother’s domain, and men are marketed aggressively masculine bags that suggest taking a load off Mom is something to be embarrassed about, even camouflaged.
My wife and I didn’t explicitly have a discussion about gender norms (“Honey, does this pattern say ‘emotional labour’ to you?”), but choosing a more neutral bag represents to us a commitment to a more equal view of parenting. I didn’t want to be that dad who sticks around for the smiles and giggles, then hands the baby off to Mom when the little one “takes a ride on the blue line” — or, when a diaper’s wetness indicator inevitably appears. I want to have a hand in the dirty, unpleasant jobs, too, and I’m not alone as dads get more involved in parenting.
Mothers already spend countless hours a week performing “mom jobs” — everything from literally keeping a baby alive via breastfeeding, to the effort of remembering which foods they should be introduced to and in what order, to maintaining their child’s nap schedule. Diaper duty is no different in placing outsize responsibility on mothers, and it’s exacerbated by how society has gendered the things we carry.
We eventually settled on a camouflage-print backpack that my wife picked (from a different retailer, thankfully). It packed plenty of storage and looked more Marc Jacobs than SEAL Team Six.
Problem solved, for a time.
Slowly but surely, my wife took over diaper duty when we were out and about.
When our girl arrived and I took a month of parental leave, diaper duty was solidly my responsibility, half because I insisted on it, and half because my wife was recovering from an emergency C-section. I was facing anxiety over my heightened awareness of being, to put it kindly, biologically inessential in those first few months. Sure, I couldn’t produce milk, but changing soiled diapers (among other duties) made me feel like I was contributing.
But, when we took our first baby steps out into the world as parents, weeks later — visits to the library, short road trips to family and runs to the grocery store — my wife started carrying “our” diaper bag more often. It saved her the hassle of carrying a purse; it attached to our stroller; and, admittedly, she was always the better planner.
Slowly but surely, my wife took over diaper duty when we were out and about. (Not that I’ve encountered many men’s bathrooms with changing tables, but that’s another story.) My wife ensured we always had an extra outfit packed, were full up on diapers, had fresh wipes. It was certainly more convenient — for me. Why put up a fight? I’ll stick to carrying the stroller and packing the car and, um, the dad jobs.
And what are those, exactly? The Carrier of Heavy Things, Reacher of Upper Shelves, Fixer of Homes and Mower of Lawns — these tasks have been traditionally assigned to dads, and do help support their partner and child, but they omit any actual acts of parenting. Jobs that deal with child rearing and nurturing, on the other hand, must often be explicitly assigned to fathers to avoid defaulting to Mom. Carrying a diaper bag was a symbol of my accepted responsibility, and why I felt like a failure when I so easily shrugged it off.
As Lisa Miller recently wrote for The Cut, it used to be men who carried bags around, along with the responsibility for being prepared for life’s unexpected moments. For a long time, it was money belts, stemming from who had access to economic resources. Then, times changed and fashion evolved. Pockets appeared on women’s dresses, handbags found their way onto shoulders. Women started carrying around more, and men less. Miller notes that today, it’s often men who carry next to nothing, while women carry purses filled with tissues, makeup, snacks, lip balm, a phone, pens and paper, hand sanitizer, you name it — plus the social burden of being prepared, or packed for, any emergency or occurrence.
The responsibility for how we move forward in parenting, as they say, rests on our shoulders.
In the context of diaper bags, now a global, $600-million industry marketed mostly toward women, it’s telling who society expects to carry what. It’s precisely why men are terrified of the feminization that carrying a bag — any bag — represents, and perhaps its responsibilities as well.
I wish I could say that I figured it out, but I haven’t. I’ve only been at this dad thing seven months. But the one way I can see out of this rut is obtaining my own damn diaper bag — perhaps the best way to share in a responsibility is actually to own it completely.
Securing a diaper bag exclusively my own will (hopefully) eliminate any easy outs and restore a degree of balance to this part of our workload — both physical and emotional labour, at home and while we’re out. Being the one who physically carries it, and remembers to top up its contents, is literally the least dads like me can do.
I love the time I spend with my daughter when she’s on the change mat or table. Poop and pee aside, it’s a rare moment of solo facetime and an excellent opportunity for tummy raspberries. I also love giving my wife a break, so she can finally (finally!) finish a cup of coffee before it turns cold.
Dads on diaper duty alone won’t make parenting more equal, yet it’s one of the many responsibilities we can take on to get closer to that goal. The responsibility for how we move forward in parenting, as they say, rests on our shoulders.
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