I am a stay-at-home dad who felt like an outsider in the playgroup. That needs to change.

At the end of 2018, I participated in my first mom-and-me playgroup as a stay-at-home dad. At the time, every day seemed the same. I shook my 5 month old son to sleep for hours just to make him wake up 20 minutes later. If I picked him up too fast, he would cry as if the world was going under. My sense of complete worthlessness was amplified by societal stereotypes that I watched on TV of fathers are hop fools who could not operate a diaper and heard in well-meaning comments from strangers on the street who called me “Mr. Mother.”

The playgroup met at a temple one mile away from my house in Albany, New York. I laid my son on a rug and saw that most of the mothers were gathered, shared stories, gave advice and planned play dates. The only other father sat alone at the other end of the room, serving his daughter snacks from a diaper bag.

Playgroups involving music, reading and playing time have proven to be one powerful resource for both children and caregivers. Compared to the United States, where playgroups are more informal, playgroups in Australia are recognized in the United States government curriculum as important early efforts together with kindergarten and kindergarten. According to Australian Institute of Family Studies, they can help children improve social skills, self-confidence and speech and serve as a gateway to early education, mental health services and other support resources.

I have witnessed these benefits first hand when I saw my son squeeze his imagination – erect fortresses of blocks and topple them – in the playgroup. We tied ribbons while clapping and jumping to songs and rhymes, which increased his motor skills. In time, he learned to negotiate with peers about who got to play with plastic pots in the kitchen set.

And yet I constantly felt that I did not belong. A mother constantly threw her son at me and told us we should have “man hour”. Another saw me as an outsider, so she confided in me that she had a hard time getting in touch with the women, but that she was looking to find play dates. When she had a couple of girlfriends, she stopped talking to me.

I am a stay-at-home dad who felt like an outsider in the playgroup.  That needs to change.

The author “gets a hug” from his son.

This outsider predicament is a common experience for fathers. When Lance Somerfeld and Matt Schneider were co-founders City Dads Group Twelve years ago, many home fathers struggled through their days alone, just as I did, in search of a community that did not exist. Schneider said some City Dads members would make mom friends and then be told that their friends’ husbands were not comfortable with the friendship. More commonly, he said, men were completely ignored.

Others reported going to playgrounds with their children and making them feel like “predators” after other caregivers behaved nervously and avoided them. Schneider said he tried to join a Lower Manhattan mother group, but was told they did not allow fathers because the space was supposed to be “comfortable for mothers.” For Somerfeld, it was crucial to create a specialized group, not just to promote community, but as a resource to learn how to become the best caregivers they could be.

Today more fathers are being recognized as active caregivers, Somerfeld told me, adding, “It’s an exciting time.” Multiple care rooms center titles on children and family, not the type of caregiver. But there is still a deficit. Many parental support groups stay mom-focused or mom-exclusive, and there are plenty of venues promoting “Mom and Me” meetings and art programs. With the number of fathers at home increases every year, it’s high time, and simply good business, to market towards us too.

But not everyone thinks that creating father groups is the answer. Dr. Jordan Shapiro, the author of the book “Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad”, completely disagreed with the concept of gender playgroups. “Playgroups should be about what’s in the best interests of the child,” he told me, and playgroups based on a gender binary can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices.

It’s OK for like-minded fathers to meet for a beer, but gendered playgroups, Shapiro said, “serve only to reinforce problematic power structures.” Although fathers may feel like outsiders in playgroup culture, the “mom and me” construction reinforces the myth that mothers have “magic ties” to children, which makes everything the pressure on mothers to care chores – something they undertake at a drastically disproportionate rate And seduces them with guilt if they choose to focus on their careers. At the same time, it is pushing fathers away, he said.

After several months in the Mother-and-Me Temple playgroup, I branched out into non-gender-based activities, such as history lessons at local libraries, but found the same policy at work. Mothers planned play appointments with each other, referring to events they had found on mother-centered online sites. Some mothers did not speak to me. One mom complimented everything I did but called me “Daddy Day Care”.

I found that I avoided the few other men in groups, sat across the room and avoided eye contact, worried that it would distance me even more from the women if I talked to them.

The author after trying to get away to use the bathroom.

The author after trying to get away to use the bathroom.

Fortunately, my isolation did not last forever. One Wednesday morning in my local Baby Bounce group, my son was knocking on the seat of a chair while Miss Melissa, his favorite librarian, was reading a story. A nearby mother shot him a smile and laughed at his jokes. The playtime came, and her daughter helped my son destroy train tracks, while the mother – my first playgroup friend – and I shared our experiences sleeping with our children.

We notified each other of updates about our kids and new story times to look up. She was not Jewish, but her family joined mine for Sabbath dinner. I felt more confident when I got a buddy. My son and I would hang out after the playgroups ended. I talked to other caregivers when my son served fake ice cream to everyone. If I noticed another dad sitting alone, I made it a point to ask how he was feeling.

The mother-and-me playgroup I first attended became virtual, and my son and I attend every Friday, clapping and singing Sabbath songs. Six months ago, the group changed its name to Baby and Toddler Time. I called Amy Drucker, the group leader, who had since become a friend, and inquired about what caused the shift. She told me that another full-time father did not feel welcome and asked to change the name.

“It would never have occurred to me,” Drucker said. “Not because I’m closed, just because what we did worked and you get comfortable and you start resting on your laurels.” And then she added, “That was always what those groups 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 daughter. When I saw mothers from the playgroups, we pulled towards each other and planned playdowns; we were all desperate for connection. I met new parents along with other caregivers who struggled to fit in while their children tumbled around. It was often not just the men who stood awkwardly around. Parenting and caring are monotonous. It can be lonely. Socialization can feel insurmountable. But we can be accommodating to other relatives. We can do it because we need fellowship. We can do it because our children need to read together and sing together and learn socialization. We can do this because our children need us to model kindness.

Jay Deitcher is a part-time writer, former social worker, and full-time homemaker 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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