Last weekend, I got to be a dad. It was unplanned — I thought I was just going backpacking with an old friend and her baby — but it happened, like it does, and I manned up to it.
It happened like this: my dear friend Jeanne and her 10 month old baby Ava and Squinchy and I decided to go baby backpacking in the North Cascades while Ava’s actual daddy was hiking hardcore in Alaska.
I carried the sleeping bags and food and most of the gear, while Jeanne carried Ava, the tent, and Ava’s diaper bag and medicines and spirulina-banana-sesame “cookies.” Jeanne also carried the camelsucker.
I should explain. Most people would call the camelsucker a Camelbac or Platypus, or — if they want to go generic and yet still vaguely insulting — a hydration bag. Most people have little sense of the possibility of language. Ava’s grandfather, however, is no word wimp. “Does that thing come with a camelsucker?” he asked Ava’s daddy about his new backpack. Of course, it stuck.
I won’t be surprised if it’s Ava’s first word, after “mamamamama” and “dadadadada.” It’s already her teddy bear. How many children get hydrated by their comfort objects? How many children crawl around dragging a cross between an IV bag and a hookah? How many children are Ava May?
Ava loves her camelsucker. To quote a song Daddy Becca wrote to entertain her while her mom was washing her diapers, “You love your camelsucker but not the way you love your mother who is washing out your diapers in a raging mountain river….”
But I was telling you about being a dad, because I was totally the dad of that trip. I set up the tent. I operated the stove. I pumped most of the water.I carried a very large pack. I engineered the clotheslines when we needed to dry Ava’s diapers over the fire since nothing dries quickly in the Pacific Northwest, even in July. I carried the lighter and the map. I reassured the mom that the baby was not suffocating while she slept in the backpack. I went on little solo scouting walks when I needed a break and I did not ask permission. I did many things for Jeanne that she was at least as capable of doing as I was, except she was nursing or bouncing or carrying another person already. I did most of the “real work” of backpacking and I got consistent recognition for it.
Actually, Jeanne did quite a lot of that work as well — she pumped some water, helped with the tent, built the fire, gathered some wood, etc. — but somehow it seemed like I was the one doing it, like I was the one who should be acknowledged for it. I was the one who was focused on it, even when Ava was eating fir cones or screaming for her camelsucker. It gave me a sense of usefulness, and the acknowledgment helped. And what was I supposed to say in return? “Thanks for nursing your baby?” Somehow, it never came out of my mouth, though it was true. I mean, if she hadn’t been nursing that baby, what would I have done? Not to mention that she blistered her hands in a glacial river washing diapers, or that her pack was at least as heavy as mine, since Ava alone weighs over 22 pounds not including her camelsucker.
It quickly became clear to me that gender roles exist for a reason. They make sense. They self-perpetuate. They are efficient at ensuring the good of the whole. The more I stepped up in that hold-the-door-open kind of way, the better things worked for everyone. The trick is remembering that it isn’t about ability — Jeanne can open doors pretty well on her own — but about spreading the work.
Having been a dad, I understand some dad things: The urge to interrupt with a better idea. The desire just to operate every mechanical object myself. The tendency to retreat into productive work. The satisfaction of sharing nature with children. The importance of keeping that camelsucker from running dry.
Working in our little team, we had a great trip. Jeanne and I geeked out about plants; Ava mashed them. Squinchy kept us a little too safe, which is another story. Ava played in the dirt and slept in the moss and had her diaper changed under the open sky. Jeanne kept Ava safe and happy and diapered. I made us some killer oatmeal.
According to Jeanne, I made a good dad. Ava approved too, though I can’t be compared to her real dad, not to mention her camelsucker.