Being a stay-at-home dad, I hang around a lot of mums. Usually this is good, as we men aren't supposed to know what we're doing when it comes to parenting. Or most things. Thus, I get kudos for achievements as praiseworthy as getting my two daughters out of the house and still alive.
Once, and I'm not embellishing, I took our toddlers into my wife's work, whereupon a receptionist noted how great I was for the fact that "he's even got them dressed!".
Had I not previously been a capable journalist, able to type and chew at the same time? Had I not once beaten my wife at Scrabble? Still, this woman pictured me at home, grappling with toddler and jumpsuit, stopping only for the occasional bout of tears at the futility of it all, before getting the last button done and thrusting my arms skyward, as French horns sounded out.
Still, praise for the mundane usually pushes my buttons quite nicely, thank you. But this makes my wife roll her eyes. As she rightly points out, no mother ever got a thumbs-up from a stranger, as I used to, for mastering the tricky art of, err, holding a bottle while a baby sucked on it.
Stay-home parenting is no walk in the park, but I do find it preferable to a frantic newspaper office. I'm also sure there's some survey somewhere that says stay-at-home dads worry 90 percent less than their female counterparts. Or as a wise (female) comedian once said: "What's the difference between a mother and a father? A father is a mother without the guilt".
Still, the mums in our Beijing apartment compound seem to like me, and embrace me as one of their own, like the fabled human baby in the pack of wolves, or something. Occasionally, though, something slips out, and the pack turns. I'm exposed, like in that scene from The Great Escape where the hint of an accent reveals one escapee is not a German civilian but a Britisher pigdog. Take, for example, what's become known as The Haircut Incident.
My recollection is this: There was a birthday party one Sunday morning. I'd been out the night before, and my brain was either nicely relaxed, or completely disengaged.
I entered to find my friend and fellow Australian, Susan*, a 40-odd mother of two, talking to some other women. I approached and received mute nods and smiles, as Susan was in mid-story. I hoped it was about football, but it was about her hair. I perused Susan's head and, sure enough, she'd had a haircut. Going into as much detail as a dad can, I would say it used to be kind of long and flowing, but now it was short and ... weeell ... a bit plain. Pretty bad actually, I thought. What Australians would call a dodgy 'do. Susan was talking, touching the newly trimmed locks, sheepishly telling her smiling fellow mums how she'd always thought about getting it cut short and so now here it was.
It was time for me to contribute. I can hold my own in hair conversations, since I used to have some, so I came in with this knowledgeable sounding effort:
"Aah -- you've gone for the mum cut, eh?"
What was wrong with that?
Isn't it a scientific fact that, on average, women's hair gets shorter after motherhood? Isn't it something to do with sticky kid fingers? Well, I thought it was. I also thought the comment was fine, having come from a male background. Generally, we only comment on another man's haircut to say how shocking it is. But perhaps my lack of hair leaves me insensitive to the more hairy.
It turns out there was plenty wrong with my quip.
The mothers turned on me, especially Susan, whose face rating was quickly downgraded from "beaming and happy" to "sunken and sullen" by my eight little words which meant so much.
"Thanks a lot," she hissed. Even in my bleary state I could tell she didn't mean it.
"What?!" I said out loud, probably with that "Have I erred?" face my wife loves so much. I didn't get much of an answer, just a couple of dark shakes of the head that remind me of a high school dance. As we stood there awkwardly, a ticking clock the only sound, I thought carefully about my next move, then carried it out to perfection: I walked away and found a bloke and talked about football.
That was that, I thought, but later I related the episode to my wife. She recoiled in horror as if I'd announced I burned kittens for fun. This, apparently, was a faux pas extraordinaire. A phone call had to be made, an apology rendered on my behalf for my empty head, calloused heart, and complete lack of knowledge about how to behave in public.
"What?!" I repeated. I have to be told, patiently, how women of a certain age and parental status must be reminded how great they look -- and not, conversely, have it suggested they've thrown in the towel in the battle of aesthetics and gone for "The People's No.1 Mother Haircut".
Word spread. Days later I saw a working dad, and he laughed hard: "My wife always says (cue mocking female voice): 'Oh Trevor's so nice and so sensitive and blah blah blah', and then you say that haircut line!" The scoundrel is triumphant.
A week later I told my wife how a male friend had seen Sonia, mother of two, by the pool in a bikini and thought she looked hot. Wife almost fell over herself trying to locate Sonia to tell her, as though it should appear in our imaginary compound women's magazine under: "Young single guy finds 40-something mother of two still hot!" Now that, my wife said, is what mums want to hear, not the oaf she married lampooning a brave new haircut.
Now I have two golden rules, critical to my existence around mothers: Never ask a woman if she's pregnant, even when she has her feet in stirrups and a bunch of doctors around her. And never, ever, ask if she's had her haircut.
(*Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and those with dodgy hairdos).