At the end of 2018, I participated in my first mom and me playgroup as a stay-at-home dad. Back then, every day seemed the same. I rocked my 5 month old to sleep for hours only to wake up 20 minutes later. If I caught up to him too fast, he would cry like the world was ending. My feeling of utter worthlessness was compounded by the societal stereotypes I saw on TV that fathers were clumsy fools who couldn’t operate on a diaper and heard in well-meaning comments from strangers on the street who told me called ‘Mr. Mum.”
The playgroup met at a temple a mile from my home in Albany, New York. I placed my son on a blanket and saw that most of the mums were huddled together, sharing stories, giving advice and planning play dates. The only other dad sat alone on the other end of the room, serving her daughter snacks from a diaper bag.
Playgroups involving music, reading and playtime have proven to be a powerful resource for children and caregivers. Compared to the United States, where playgroups are more informal, playgroups in Australia are recognized in the government curriculum as important early interventions alongside kindergarten and kindergarten. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, they can help children improve their social skills, confidence and language, and act as gateways to early education, mental health services and other support resources.
I witnessed these benefits first hand when I watched my son stretch his imagination – raising block fortresses and knocking them down – at the playgroup. We bonded while cheering and hopping to songs and rhymes, increasing his motor skills. Over time, he learned to negotiate with his peers over who could play with plastic pots in the kitchen.
And yet, I constantly felt like I didn’t belong. A mother continually threw her son at me, telling us to have “man’s time”. Another saw me as an outsider, so she confided in me that she had trouble connecting with women but was looking to set up play dates. Once she had a few friends, she stopped me. speak.
This difficult situation is a common experience for dads. When Lance Somerfeld and Matt Schneider co-founded City Dads Group 12 years ago, many stay-at-home dads struggled alone like me, looking for a community that didn’t exist. Schneider said some members of City Dads would befriend moms and then be told that their friends’ husbands weren’t comfortable with the friendship. More commonly, he says, men were completely ignored.
Others said they went to playgrounds with their children and felt like they were ‘predators’ after other caregivers got nervous and avoided them. Schneider said he tried to join a group of moms in Lower Manhattan, but was told they didn’t allow dads because the space needed to be “mom-friendly.” For Somerfeld, creating a specialist group was essential, not only to foster community, but as a resource for learning how to be the best caregivers possible.
Today, more fathers are being recognized as active caregivers, Somerfeld told me, adding, “It’s an exciting time. More and more care spaces are centering titles around children and family, not the type of caretaker. But there is still a deficit. Many parent support groups remain mom-focused or mom-exclusive, and many venues promote “mommy and me” get-togethers and arts programs. With the number of stay-at-home dads growing every year, it’s high time, and just plain good for business, to also market to us.
But not everyone thinks creating dad groups is the answer. Dr. Jordan Shapiro, the author of the book “Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad,” strongly disagreed with the concept of gendered playgroups. “Playgroups should be about what’s in the best interest of the child,” he told me, and gender-binary playgroups can reinforce stereotypes and biases.
It’s OK for like-minded dads to get together for a beer, but gendered playgroups, Shapiro said, “only serve to reinforce problematic power structures.” Even though dads can feel like strangers in playgroup culture, the “mommy and me” construct reinforces the myth that moms have “magical bonds” with children, putting all the pressure on moms to custodial duties – something they take on at a radically disproportionate rate. – and makes them feel guilty if they choose to focus on their careers. At the same time, it repels dads, he says.
After several months in the mommy and me temple playgroup, I got into gender-neutral activities like story times at local libraries, but found the same politics at work. The moms were planning play dates with each other, referencing events they had found on mom-centric online sites. Some moms wouldn’t talk to me. A mom complimented everything I did, but called me “Daddy Day Care”.
I found myself avoiding the few other men in the group, sitting across the room and avoiding eye contact, fearing that talking to them would alienate me further from the women.
Fortunately, my isolation did not last forever. One Wednesday morning at my local Baby Bounce group, my son was banging on the seat of a chair while Miss Melissa, his favorite librarian, read a story. A nearby mother smiled at him, chuckling at his antics. Playtime came and her daughter helped my son destroy the train tracks, while the mother – my first playgroup friend – and I bonded over our experiences of co-sleeping with our children.
We exchanged messages about our children and new story times to follow. She wasn’t Jewish, but her family joined mine for Shabbat dinner. I felt safer once I had a boyfriend. My son and I were hanging out after playgroups ended. I talked with other caregivers while my son served everyone fake ice cream. If I noticed another father sitting alone, I made it a point to ask him how he was.
The mommy and me playgroup I first attended has gone virtual, and my son and I attend every Friday, clapping and singing Shabbat songs. Six months ago, the band changed their name to Baby and Toddler Time. I called Amy Drucker, the leader of the band, who had since become a friend, and asked her what prompted the change. She told me another full-time dad didn’t feel welcome and asked to change her name.
“It would never have occurred to me,” Drucker said. “Not because I’m closed-minded, just because what we were doing was working, and you feel comfortable and you start resting on your laurels.” And then she added, “That was always what these bands were called.”
This summer, as the world reopened a bit, my son and I started visiting playgrounds again. We had a new accomplice: my little girl. When I saw the playgroup moms, we got close and planned playdates; we were all desperate for connection. I’ve met new parents as well as other caregivers who struggled to fit in while their kids were toddling around. It was often not just the men who stood awkwardly. Parenting and caregiving are monotonous. He can be lonely. Socializing can seem overwhelming. But we can be welcoming to other caregivers. We can do this because we need community. We can do this because our children need to read together, sing together, and learn socialization. We can do this because our children need us to show kindness.
Jay Deitcher is a part-time writer, former social worker, and full-time stay-at-home dad from Albany, New York. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Esquire, The Cut, Wired and The Lily. You can find his work on jaydeitcher.com.
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