My one-year-old son, Finlay, is stowed in my backpack carrier. He ignores the rain dripping through the trees and happily munches a rice cake, while his older sister, Amelia, holds my hand and skips along the trail. Keith, a “dad” friend, pushes his one-year-old in a jogging stroller beside us. “Hayden was up all night,” he sighs. “Nothing worked.” I nod sympathetically and tell him my son needed to be breastfed three times during the night. The conversation rambles as we walk, but inevitably drifts back to our kids. As we follow the path through the wet woods, trailing this trio of toddlers and swapping stories about parenting, it suddenly occurs to me that this is our “baby group.” This is how dads connect.
One generation ago, the idea of stay-at-home father was foreign; two generations back it was unthinkable. While daytime dads are still a minority in Canada today (13 percent in 2007, according to Statistics Canada), they are becoming more commonplace every year. It’s a different dynamic for everyone, but the benefits to a family willing to explore non-traditional roles can be incredible. Dads experience a stronger connection to their kids; moms are empowered to pursue meaningful careers; children flourish in a nurturing environment where a parent is always present.
Are dads different?
Do men bring a different perspective to daily life? Perhaps, but the differences may not be that profound. Bill Rieger works for the Coast Guard in Sandspit, BC, and is home with his two-year-old son, Anten, for 21 days at a time. While he relishes the opportunity to spend so much time with Anten, daily life as a dad does present its challenges. “One of the difficulties is that I’m ‘Daddy,’” he says, explaining that when Anten has a tumble, he instinctively wants his mom. “She’s very much number one on his list. He wants to be cuddled, and maybe I’m not naturally like that.” But just as newborns crave contact with both parents, toddlers thrive on different parenting styles. The approach might be different, but dads do provide a nurturing environment. “Maybe I tell him to ‘brush it off’ sometimes,” Rieger admits, “but I’m always trying to make sure there’s the same level of comfort as he gets from his mom. Anten’s wants and needs are number one.”
“I’ll call you right back,” Darcy Mathews tells me from his home in Victoria. In the background, there’s a sleepy wail from his toddler, Arlo. “He’s been doing this lately,” Mathews explains when he calls back. “He goes down for a nap, then wakes up about 10 minutes later, and I have to cuddle him back to sleep in our bed.” Mathews, an archaeologist studying for his Ph.D., recently took on the role of primary caregiver when his wife, Holly, returned to her job as a molecular biologist. “Most people in our situation — two working professionals — put their kids in daycare,” he says. “We didn’t want to do that.” Instead, he and Holly decided that one of them should stay at home. He now studies in the evenings and on weekends, sometimes taking Arlo to meetings, the university library and even into the field for research. “If I really need to distract him,” he laughs, “I give him my iPod. That keeps him busy for a really long time.” But if Arlo needs his dad — to play or for reassurance — he drops everything. “My priorities are Arlo and Holly.”
Darren Bouwman, a stay-at-home dad also based in Sandspit, struggles to find differences between his parenting and his wife’s. “You know what? I can’t see my day being a whole lot different,” he says. “We like going for nature walks. It’s something I have a passion for and I like to get the kids involved in that as much as possible.” But Bouwman does admit that his wife arranges more playdates. “She’s a bit more social than I am,” he explains.
Connecting to the community
Many dads seem to be reluctant — at least at first — to connect with other parents. It may simply be the reality of being in a minority, or maybe men really are more reserved. Jeremy Adam Smith is the author of The Daddy Shift, a book that explores the world of stay-at-home dads from Smith’s own perspective as a parent. “I was not interested in connecting,” he admits. But Smith soon overcame his apprehensions. Traditional male self-sufficiency, he says, is “incompatible with the social life of being a parent.” Social connection to other parents provides affirmation that you’re not alone, and that these mind-bogglingly crazy things that are happening to your toddler — both good and bad — are actually pretty normal.
It’s not always easy, but Smith firmly believes in the value of connecting with other parents and says he’s seen an increase in stay-at-home dad groups over his five years as a parent.
“When I first took over [full-time parenting], my intention was to find a group of dads, or even start a group,” says Mathews. “But the reality is my day is so full.” For the time being, he sticks to a playground across the street for social interaction, and finds it fulfilling. While meeting other dads might be rare, he says, connecting with strangers is actually easier as a full-time dad. Mathews says people will approach him simply to say they think he’s a good dad. “It’s interesting how freely people will comment on how you’re doing as a parent,” he says. “No one ever came up and said to me, ‘Wow, you’re a really good typist.’ I think people are interested to see a father interacting with his child. There’s a novelty to it.”
Rieger often takes Anten to StrongStart, a provincially funded program for preschoolers. “There’s admittedly a little bit of isolation,” he says, describing how he’s almost always the only dad there. Groups may be inclusive, but it can be hard for a dad to find something in common with, say, a bunch of moms discussing breastfeeding. Mathews describes feeling similarly awkward at the playground. “The people I talk to most are grandmothers,” he says. “Maybe it’s the odd ducks getting together.” (Learn about strategies for connecting)
And social connection isn’t always positive. Mathews has had his share of funny looks and odd comments. “People often say things like ‘So you got stuck babysitting today, eh?’” When he explains he’s a full-time parent, people are surprised. “The first reaction is always shock,” he says. It bothered him at first, but he isn’t fazed by it anymore.
Instead, what does bother him is the persistence of people, in the presence of both parents, to ask Holly how Arlo is doing — even if they know he’s a stay-at-home dad. “I’m at home with Arlo all day,” he protests. “I’m the one who knows.”
Are mom-directed questions intended to belittle his efforts as a parent? No. But the fact remains that the vast majority of stay-at-home parents are mothers and it’s not easy to shake off traditional assumptions about a family. “It’s hard for people to get their heads around all this,” says Smith. But given time, attitudes change. Smith believes that no one will think twice about dads staying home in a few years.
While widespread acceptance of stay-at-home dads would be nice, connecting with kids is what really counts. “It’s great to have the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad,” says Mathews. “Arlo is turning out to be a wonderful guy.” Rieger agrees: “There’s a bond between me and Anten that is different because I’m at home,” he says.
The instinctive intimacy between a mother and child is amazing, but there’s something unique about the intimacy between father and child that grows with time and effort, in hours spent playing on the floor or at the park, exploring and discovering the world together. Whatever the challenges — and there are definite challenges — the rewards of being a dad at home are worth it.
The trail leads to a rocky beach where Keith and I let the little ones down to explore. I crouch down and, with a smile, pry salty rocks from my boy’s mouth. “Tastes good, doesn’t it, Fin?” I ask. He nods and promptly inserts another. Keith grins and checks to make sure Hayden hasn’t followed suit. The sun slips out from behind a cloud and we sit together, watching a pair of eagles circle in the thermals.
On the way back, Keith will try to get Hayden to sleep in the stroller, and I’m hopeful that Finlay will fall asleep in the backpack. I have a handful of fruit leathers in my pocket to keep Amelia going. If all goes well, maybe Keith and I will discuss mountain bikes…or poop, whichever comes first. Dad group is a great place to be.
Coming up: Find ways to connect with other dads
Working the network
It may not be easy to get out and connect with other parents, but as author Jeremy Adam Smith says, social interaction is indispensable for both dad and toddler. “Get yourself a gang,” urges Smith. “Connect with other dads. Connect with other moms. Go in smiling and keep on smiling.”
Playgrounds are a great place to meet like-minded parents, as are organized playgroups and toddler programs at the local rec centre. If you can’t find any dad-focused groups, don’t worry: Gender doesn’t really matter. Buck the trend, embrace the majority and join a mommy group.
While online resources for dads aren’t exactly plentiful, here are a few daddy-driven websites worth checking out:
daddy-dialectic.blogspot.com Jeremy Adam Smith’s award-winning blog on male parenting offers a good laugh or two about guys in similar situations.
equallysharedparenting.com These folks have given a lot of thought to the subject of sharing parental duties and have plenty of useful information.
dadcentric.com An unabashed look at parenthood from a male perspective, this blog is by a coalition of writer-dads who say they’re “at the forefront of a revolution whose purpose is to overthrow the outdated notions of fatherhood.”