In late 2018, I attended my first mom and dad playgroup as a stay-at-home dad. At that time, every day seemed the same. I rocked my 5 month old son to sleep for hours only to wake up 20 minutes later. If you hold him fast, he will cry as if the world was about to end. My sense of absolute worthlessness was exacerbated by the societal stereotypes I saw on TV of goofy, grumbling parents who couldn’t run diapers and heard in well-meaning comments from strangers on the street who called me “Mr. Umm.”
The playgroup gathered at a temple about a mile from my home in Albany, New York. I put my son on a blanket and saw that most of the moms huddle together, share stories, give tips, and plan play dates. The only other father sat alone at the other end of the room, giving his daughter snacks from a diaper bag.
Playgroups that include music, reading, and playtime have proven to be a powerful resource for both children and caregivers. Compared to the United States, where playgroups are more informal, playgroups in Australia are recognized in government curricula as important early interventions along with nursery and kindergarten. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, they can help children improve social skills, confidence and speech, and serve as gateways to early education, mental health services and other support resources.
I’ve seen these benefits firsthand as I watched my son nudge his imagination–raising fortresses from blocks and destroying them–into a playgroup. We bonded while clapping and jumping on songs and rhymes, which increased his motor skills. Over time, he learned to negotiate with peers about who plays with plastic utensils in the kitchen set.
However, I constantly felt like I didn’t belong. One mother was constantly throwing her son at me, telling us “man time”. Another saw me as an outsider, telling me that she had difficulty communicating with women but that she was looking to make play dates. Once she had two girlfriends, she stopped talking to me.
This external predicament is a common experience for parents. When Lance Sommerfeld and Matt Schneider co-founded City Dads Group 12 years ago, many stay-at-home dads struggled through their days alone as did I, searching for a community that didn’t exist. Schneider said some City Dads made maternal friends and were then told that their friends’ husbands weren’t comfortable with the friendship. It is most common, he said, to completely ignore men.
Others reported going to playgrounds with their children and making them feel “predatory” after other caregivers acted nervous and avoided them. Schneider said he tried to join the Lower Manhattan moms group, but were told they don’t allow dads because the space should be “mommies-comfortable.” For Somerfeld, creating a specialist group was essential, not only to strengthen the community but as a resource for learning how to be the best caregivers that they can be.
Somerfield told me that more parents today are being recognized as active caregivers, adding, “It’s an exciting time.” More caregiving places focus on children and the family, rather than the type of caregiver. But there is still a shortfall. Many parenting support groups remain mother-focused or mother-specific, and there are plenty of places that promote “me and mom” arts encounters and programs. With the number of stay-at-home dads rising every year, it’s time, and simply good deed, to market towards us as well.
But not everyone thinks creating parent groups is the answer. Dr.. Jordan Shapiro, author of The Shape of a Father: How to Be a Feminist Father, is very different from the concept of gender playgroups. “Playgroups should revolve around what is in the best interests of the child,” he told me, and intersex-based playgroups can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices.
Shapiro said it’s nice for like-minded parents to get together for a beer, but that gender playgroups “only serve to reinforce problematic power structures.” Although fathers can feel like strangers in playgroup culture, the construction of “mother and me” reinforces the myth that mothers have “magical bonds” with children, putting all the pressure on mothers to carry out caring duties – something they do at an unimaginable rate. Overly proportional — and burdens them with guilt if they choose to focus on jobs. At the same time, he said, he’s pushing parents away.
After several months in the playgroup at Mother and Me Temple, I branched out into non-sex-based activities, such as story times at local bookstores, but found the same policy at work. The mothers planned play dates with each other, noting events they found on mother-focused internet sites. Some mothers did not talk to me. One mom praised everything I did, but called me “Daddy Day Care.”
I found myself avoiding a few other men in groups, sitting across the room and avoiding eye contact, worried that talking to them might distance me further from the women.
Thank God, my isolation did not last forever. One Wednesday morning at the local Baby Bounce group, my son was banging on a chair while Miss Melissa, his favorite librarian, was reading a story. A mother close to him gave him a smile, laughing at his antics. Playtime came, her daughter helped my son destroy the train tracks, while the mother – my first playgroup friend – related to our shared experiences of sleeping with our children.
We’ve sent each other updates about our kids and new story times to arrive. She was not Jewish, but her family did join the Shabbat dinner. I felt more secure once I had a boyfriend. My son and I were hanging out after the playgroups were over. I talked to other caregivers as my son was serving everyone fake ice cream. If I noticed another dad sitting alone, I made it clear to ask how he was doing.
The Mom and Me playgroup I attended for the first time became virtual, and my son and I came every Friday, clapping and singing Shabbat songs. Six months ago, the group changed its name to Baby and Toddler Time. She called Amy Drucker, the leader of the group, who has since become a friend, and inquired about the reason for the change. She told me that another full-time parent did not feel welcome and asked for a name change.
“It would never have crossed my mind,” Drucker said. “It’s not because I’m closed-minded, just because what we’ve been doing has been working, and you get comfortable and start to build on your laurels.” She then added, “That was always what those groups were called.”
This summer, when the world reopened a bit, my son and I started visiting stadiums again. We had a new partner: my little girl. When I saw mothers from playgroups, we gravitated to each other and planned play dates; We all really needed a connection. I meet new parents and other caregivers who struggle to fit in while their children are wandering around. Often it was not only men who stood in an awkward place. Parenting and caregiving is monotonous. He can be lonely. Socializing can feel insurmountable. But we can welcome other caregivers. We can do this because we need society. 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 model kindness.
Jay Deacher is a part-time writer, former social worker, and full-time stay-at-home parent from Albany, New York. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Esquire, The Cut, Wired, and The Lily. You can find his work at jaydeitcher.com.
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