It’s Not “Babysitting” When They’re Your Own Children

What my male chauvinist neighbor taught me about being a bad dad

I don’t want to presume to know the vocabulary skills of all second graders. But I think I can safely assume that most of them don’t know what the words “male chauvinist” mean.

But, I did.

I’d figured it out from the context clues when I was eavesdropping on a group of moms I knew. I was very big on eavesdropping after reading Harriet the Spy which suggested that, though I understood the book’s vocabulary, it’s possible I didn’t fully comprehend the moral of the story.

Anyway, the moms were talking about one of the dads I knew — one of the dads I never particularly liked. One of the moms called him a “chauvinist pig” and I didn’t even need the “pig” part to understand that was a bad thing. The mom’s voice tone made it clear: “chauvinist” equaled “jerk.”

But had I needed more clarification, she provided some. She talked about how he never helped around the house, how he never raised a hand to help raise his own kids, how he wasn’t very nice to his wife and how he spent money on expensive things just for him while his family had other needs.

His rationale for his purchases, which he stated clearly and without a smidgen of guilt, was that he was the one who actually earned the money while his wife stayed home with their children.

The mom went on and eventually I got bored and walked away. After all, none of this was new to me.

I didn’t like the guy either. I never had, but I was at his house frequently anyway since his daughter was a friend of mine and his son was a friend of my brother’s.

He was the quintessential disinterested dad — like he was cast straight out of bad 1990s sitcom. He’d come home from work, grumble, drop off his briefcase, and head back out the door or downstairs without acknowledging us, even if he had to step past us to get to the kitchen for a beer.

It’s very possible he didn’t acknowledge us because he didn’t know our names. Whether or not he knew the full names of all his children is also up for debate.

I remember him playing with us only one time when we were kids — and shocker, it did not go well. Someone had convinced him to play catch with us. It definitely was not me, as I was about as anxious to spend time with him as he obviously was to spend time with us.

It was — not surprisingly — a very short game. He threw each of us kids one or two balls, looking dejected and angry the whole time.

Then he hit my brother in the face with a baseball.

When my brother had the audacity to tear up (as well, most children, and most adults, would do after being hit in the face with a baseball at close range), the dad told him to “Walk it off” or “Man up” or something equally cliche, unhelpful and idiotic.

Exasperated, I took my brother by the hand and stormed off home. Along with eavesdropping, I was really into storming off places when I was a child. I think I may have picked up the habit because when I was younger I used to sneak out of nap time to watch snippets of my babysitter’s soap operas.

In any event, we did not play catch with that man again. And I had very little interaction with him at all, until one day, years later, when he called me and told me his wife and oldest child weren’t at home and he didn’t have the time to “babysit” his other three children.

So he asked me to come over and watch them for him. While he was home.

I was around 12 or 13 at the time, and I had no real experience with babysitting aside from repeated viewings of the Baby-Sitter’s Club movie. And it wasn’t like I was watching that for the babysitting tips. I just liked it because it had that girl from Alex Mack in it and I wanted to be her when I grew up, and that boy from My Girl 2 who I thought was pretty cute.

Sure, I’d also watched my brother over the years, but he was just three years younger than me and could be easily placated with television and snacks. This guy was asking me to watch three kids: one slightly older than my brother, one about four years younger than that and a full-fledged infant.

I did not have infant level-babysitting skills at that point. I don’t know if I do now, which, frankly, is a bit alarming since I’m nearing my third trimester with my first child. But at 12, I definitely did not know what I was doing with an infant.

I said as much, but when the money was offered, I caved and walked over to their house anyway. All those Baby-Sitter’s Club movie rentals did not come cheap, after all.

When I got to the house, it was in its usual state of chaos. The oldest boy was screaming and then sulking and then screaming some more, the middle child was crying because the oldest boy hit her or stole or toy or something older brothers do, and from down the hall I could hear the baby crying from his crib.

After the dad let me in the door, he went downstairs and I didn’t see him again that day. Presumably, he expected his wife to pay me when she got home, when she resumed her normal parenting duties — the parenting duties that her husband had shifted to some random, preteen, neighbor girl instead of taking on himself.

Now, it’d be one thing if that dad had been working from home that day — crunching some numbers in his home office or something. Or if he was tackling some important project around the house. Or even mowing the lawn or something. Anything.

But the dad wasn’t doing that. He was just sitting downstairs, watching television. I could hear it blaring through his sound system as I was upstairs rocking his crying son to sleep.

I don’t remember much else about that day, as it must have been pretty uneventful after I got everyone to stop screaming, sulking or crying. I don’t remember if the wife was surprised to see me when she got home, or even more surprised when I expected her to pay me.

The only thing I do remember from that day, is that I made myself a promise: If I ever did get married, I would absolutely, positively, not marry a man who refers to watching his own children as “babysitting.”

Because the thing is, it’s not called “babysitting” when it’s your own kids. It’s simply called “parenting.” And frankly, that’s a definition even second graders get. So, my male chauvinist neighbor was not only failing at parenting, he was failing at vocabulary too.

Thankfully, though — for myself and for my future daughter — my husband has a much better vocabulary and I’m sure, far better parenting skills.

And for that, I guess, I have to thank my male chauvinist neighbor for teaching me exactly what I didn’t want in a spouse — anybody like him.

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I’ve written nonfiction children’s books, bar reviews, health care communications and more: https://ashleystrehlehartman.com/

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