I remember the day perfectly.
I strode into the room, beaming with pride, my infant daughter strapped to my chest. Four months after becoming a dad, I was still full of energy and excitement.
Underneath it all, however, I was terrified. I didn’t know any at-home dads in my area, and more than a few people in my social circle had expressed concern about the decision to put my career on hold while my wife pursued hers.
So when I read an ad about a New Parents play group in my town, I leaped at the chance.
“Hi, I’m calling about your play group.”
“Yes, tell your wife we meet Tuesday mornings.”
“Oh it’s for me.”
“I’m an at-home Dad.”
“I hope that’s ok. I don’t want to intru—”
“Not at all. Can you come in two weeks?”
“Not a problem.”
Looking back, I realized I fell victim to a common occupational hazard for therapists. When you spend your day reading between the lines, you tend to relax after hours. This means sometimes you miss some very important social signals.
When the day arrived, I dressed up my daughter in her very best playwear and headed to the group. I approached the mat where the moms were sprawled out, playing with their infants and toddlers.
Not a single dad in sight. I took a deep breath, and kneeled down to unleash my daughter from her chest carrier.
The moms bolted up in unison, like a tribe of meerkats. “Hi,” I said, extending a hand to the nearest one and introducing myself.
The tallest mom took my hand sheepishly, with the tips of her fingers, anxiously looking at her friends for guidance. Suddenly I wondered if I’d remembered to bathe.
“This is my daughter,” I said, trying to break the ice. My daughter — far more socially skilled than me — had already identified a playmate, and was admiring his toy truck.
Another mom spoke up. “I think there are some dolls over there for your daughter.”
Without a chance to think about the gender stereotypes being offered, I said “oh thanks,” and immediately went over to look at the pile where she was pointing. I didn’t find any.
When I came back, the moms had scooped their kids and were huddled together at the crafts table. At the opposite corner of the room.
Soon it was time for play dates and birthdays. Most moms were easy to schedule things with at pickup and drop off, but there was always a subset that seemed a bit leery. It was especially tough if they were moms of kids my kid wanted to hang out with.
I’d introduce myself and ask them to call or email me if they were interested in a play date; but if they were, they’d call or email my wife instead (my wife runs two businesses and gets a ton of messages daily).
“They probably think you’re trying to hit on them.”
“With a wedding ring on and a kid strapped to my chest?”
Scenes like that would repeat themselves over and over with some moms. With others, thank goodness, I was just a fellow parent. And when one would actually call me, it felt like I’d just been asked to the prom.
When the time came, we enrolled our daughter in a highly recommended preschool some miles away. There we found some very progressive families, who marveled at we were doing. I can’t tell you what a shot in the arm that was.
Soon our second daughter was born, effectively doubling my parenting duties as well as pleasures. Though I dreaded the hourly highway commute three days a week, I loved meeting a new kind of parent: one totally at ease with my being an at-home dad.
“I saw you on TV!” A kind journalist dad I met on Twitter had given my name to a local TV producer who was doing a story on at-home dads. She interviewed me and I was on the 5, 6, and 11 o’clock news.
“Oh thanks. Should I have worn Spanx?”
“Ha! You and your youngest looked great!”
Two years ago, we made the decision to move closer to the towns where we had our offices and were quickly making all our friends. A couple of days before moving, I was approached by a neighborhood mom while volunteering at a school function.
“Hey, I heard you’re moving.”
“Where to?” I told her.
Long story perhaps for another time, but I gave her the edited version. “Well, we never quite fit in here, and are looking to move closer to friends and work.”
“Yeah. Maybe it’s because you’re an at-home dad.”
“Excuse me?” I didn’t know whether to be more appalled at the sexism or the directness.
“I mean, to be honest, I don’t think too many of us are really all that comfortable with the idea of a man staying home and raising kids.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yeah, makes you wonder what’s wrong with him.”
“Like I don’t know, can’t he find a job?”
“You mean work outside the home.” I suspected this wasn’t the time or place to bring up gender or the notion of unwaged labor. “You know I have a private practice.”
“Oh I didn’t know that.”
“Been seeing patients once a week since the girls were born.”
“Really. I thought you used to be a professor or something.”
“I was. I gave that up to become a full-time dad.”
“Ok. But you know what I mean. It’s just weird.”
Under other circumstances, I’d have asked her to elaborate, but I decided otherwise. “Well thank you for your honesty and take care.” I offered her my hand to shake.
“No problem.” Then she surprised me.
She didn’t take my hand, but gave me a warm hug instead. “Good luck with your move. We’re going to miss you and your wonderful girls.”
“Thanks.” I let myself cry just a little bit in the car on the way home. Still don’t know if they were happy, sad, or angry tears though.
A year later, I got a call from a colleague looking to refer a patient to me. I thanked her and asked what made her think of me.
“I saw you on TV last year with your daughter talking about being an at-home dad. I thought that kind of took balls.”
I thanked her.