I recently read an essay that got me thinking again about stay-at-home dads.
The number one piece of advice that writer gives to dads who fill the primary caregiver role in their family is this: “If you are a man contemplating lead parenting, one of your first imperatives should be to find other lead dads. You will need them.”
It’s the exact same thing I say to moms who are struggling with motherhood: Find other moms!
Here’s the problem, it’s in part because I say, “Find other MOMS,” that it’s so hard for stay-at-home dads to access the same support system that moms lean on so heavily.
It’s not just this one example. I tend to call gatherings “moms group” instead of “playgroup,” which would be more inclusive. I host a regular “Moms Happy Hour” that’s come to be attended by so many stay-at-home or lead parent Dads that I’ve had to change the name. “Parent Happy Hour” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. Those offering Mommy-Baby classes struggle with whether to call them Parent-Baby, only to be accused of sidelining childcare providers. It’s not perfect. It’s in progress.
Dads are shaking up things all around town and should continue to (nicely) demand their due recognition, to push into places where they belong just as much as any mom. They may find themselves more welcome than they expected, especially if they can manage to put themselves out there like moms do in the beginning of finding new parent friends.
This is really important and I have not always been good about it. I have caught myself feeling reluctant about having play dates with dads, and now I’m asking myself, “Why?”
The first time anyone ever asked me out on a play date, it was as risky and awkward and embarrassing as being asked on any kind of date. (I said yes, of course!) Most of those in my friend circles are married and well beyond the dating phase of their lives. Yet we now have play dates and family dates that seem every bit as high stakes. In so many ways, it’s exactly like dating—the potential for rejection, worrying someone is out of your league, hoping you will have anything in common.
And that’s one reason it’s different with dads. Men are people I’ve dated. In a whole different life, one left way, way, behind me now. Enough of me knows that play dates are not dating that I do it anyway, but I think women can be forgiven for having thoughts like these.
Another reason I think I’ve felt twinges of reluctance to play date with dads is this cultural stereotype floating around in the air that stay-at-home dads are men that cheat on their wives. I cannot think of a movie featuring a stay-at-home dad (those who aren’t gay) where that’s not part of the plotline. I don’t really think that the stay-at-home dads I know are out to have affairs, and have certainly never had a real life reason to worry about such a thing. But it’s just there anyway somehow.
And then, probably the biggest reason of all, moms are women. Dads are men. Women are just able to make connections to each other that aren’t possible with men. Our friendships are different and we need each other.
While I feel the need to apologize for the first two things, the third just is what it is. It’s why dads need dad-friends as much as they need women to open up their parent-group circles and be more welcoming.
This isn’t just to be nice. This is vital to the future of motherhood.
I think it’s time for women to reclaim motherhood, with a little help from the guys. Stay-at-home dads are the best thing to happen for women since the advent of birth control. Seriously. The best thing since birth control.
Being a stay-at-home mom is hard in this day and age. It’s tough for a college educated, career-tracked woman to step off that path and be totally ok with it. It’s hard not to feel like a bad feminist. It’s hard not to feel like a failure as a woman, even as you are doing this thing that is supposedly the fulfillment of your every need and desire as a woman.
The fact that there were men also doing what I was doing saved me from the feminist-failure spiral more than once. If it was only moms, I think I’d rather be working.
And the more stay-at-home dads around, the easier it will be for all of us to get back to work when we decide it's time. It will be part of a new normal--both men and women stepping aside for family and then stepping back to work. Somehow it seems crazy when it's only women doing it. But the stigma will be a lot harder to hold in place if men are doing it, too.
I’d love to see the gender balance skew even further toward equality. Better paternity leave, a paid family leave policy that is equal for male and female caregivers, and more flexible workplace rules would go a long way to making it a choice for anyone who wants to be at home with kids (or even aging parents or sick spouses!) to be there.
I would go as far as to say that women’s progress toward a more feminist motherhood as well as a more equal workplace depends on men’s progress. Fighting for them is fighting for ourselves. And that may just begin with a playgroup invitation.