I’ve been at this mom thing for almost four years now, and until last week, I hadn’t stopped to think about what it must be like for stay-at-home dads.
As a rule, I’m a huge fan. I have nothing but respect for Dads who drop everything to stay at home with their children, who put pride aside for the sake of their wives’ careers, and who establish such unique relationships with their children compared to dads who have to be gone so much during the work week.
But not until I talked over an awkward scenario with a good friend of mine recently did I really consider the social challenges stay-at-home dads face in a scene dominated by stay-at-home moms.
Here’s the scenario: My friend has a 4-year-old daughter, who is friends with a girl in her preschool who is raised by a stay-at-home dad. The two girls have played on playground after school. My friend and this child’s father have met multiple times. She thinks he’s a nice guy. But it felt a little strange when that father asked if my friend’s daughter wanted to come play with his daughter on a Saturday afternoon while the girl’s sister was off with her mom at a Girl Scouts event.
Did he mean it would be a stay-and-chat playdate? Was it a drop-off? Would that be weird? What would my friend’s husband think? What would this guy’s wife think?
Ultimately my friend just told him she had other plans. Even after he made it clear it was a drop-off invitation, she felt like her daughter was too young to leave at someone’s house she didn’t know well yet. She made that call before I raised the question of what would happen if her daughter needed to go potty. Not that either one of us thought this guy might be out to do anything untoward. But how exactly would you deal with that, if the child needs a little help?
Rather than dealing with a potentially awkward situation, she chose to avoid it. It’s hard to blame her. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about what it must be like to be the stay-at-home dad in that scenario. My bet was this guy was probably worn out from a busy week and just hoping to take the edge off a Saturday afternoon by giving his daughter a friend to play with for a couple of hours.
I don’t know a ton of stay-at-home dads, but I do know a really good one, and I wanted to ask him about all this.
His name is John Horne. We both serve on the parents’ advisory committee at our sons’ preschool. He’s a really nice guy. He always opens the door when I come barreling into a meeting with a double stroller. And he is a dedicated dad.
He and his wife Caitlin, who is an attorney, have two sons Jack, 4, and Haines, 2. Last year was Haines’ first year in preschool. Instead of doubling up his sons’ preschool days to give himself some breathers, John did the opposite. He made sure his sons’ days didn’t overlap so he could have what he dubs “adventure” days with the son who was out of school. Every day John was taking somebody to ImaginOn, or Discovery Place, or walking the Greenway, or perusing Park Road Books, or visiting Wing Haven, or exploring the Charlotte Rail Trail.
So yeah, Super Dad.
Anyway, I laid out the scenario to John recently, and he was nodding before I was two sentences into it. Then he told me a little about what it was like for him when he was starting out as a stay-at-home dad.
“Going into this, I knew I would be an outlier,” he said. “I just didn’t realize how isolated I was going to feel during those first few months by myself.”
Then John told me about the first time that isolation really hit him. He was attending a music class when his son Jack was 6 months old. Everybody in the class sits in a circle on a rug. But that day, all the other moms and nannies and their kids formed a semicircle on one side of the rug and left John and Jack on the other.
“Right away, in my mind, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing?’” he said. “Is Jack not going to have any friends because of me? Is no one going to want to play with him or associate with us? Am I hurting Jack because of this?”
Thankfully, the teacher took matters into her own hands. She sat down right next to John and drew Jack and him into the class by sheer force of her positive personality. (I know the teacher he was talking about. She is terrific.) And in the weeks to follow, John gradually got to know people and the mood shifted.
“After a while, we went from no playdates, to people wanting to grab coffees and going to ImaginOn with us and have playdates,” he said.
John is very quick to say, by the way, that he understands the potential awkwardness the male-female dynamic can present.
“I get the hesitation, and 100 percent respect that,” he said. “I could understand from their perspective if they had gone home and their significant other had been like ‘What have you being doing today?’ ‘I’ve been hanging out with this guy.’ I know how that can come across.”
But there are plenty of reasons to get past all that and find ways to do it gracefully. Before I get to that, I asked John what he wishes stay-at-moms knew about stay-at-home dads. Here’s what he said:
“Dads might be putting up a front like everything’s cool, but it can be isolating,” Horne said. “With any parent who stays at home, after a while you can only listen to Doc McStuffin’s theme song so many times before you slowly go insane because there’s no adult conversation. Reach out. It doesn’t have to be playdates or anything. If there’s a stay-at-home dad who’s at your Music Together class or if you’re watching kids during swim lessons and see a dad by himself, say hi. I know it’s difficult to find that inroad, but it means a lot. It definitely did me.”
Horne has plenty of mom friends nowadays that he gets together with for playdates. Here are some suggestions he and I put together on ways other moms (and dads) can best handle making connections with parents of the opposite sex.
1) Keep communication open with your spouse at all times. It’s a given, but we’ll say it here for good measure.
2) Start out meeting on neutral ground, in a public place, like a playdate at a park or the library.
3) If having one at home, start by having all four parents there on a weekend so everybody can get to know each other.
4) If it’s a one-parent playdate, keep it to the work week, when family time with your spouse isn’t an option, much less the priority.
5) Be patient. Realize the younger a child is the more likely mom conversation will center around breastfeeding and the birth story. By finding parents with older children or on their second and third child, they won’t be quite as focused on breastfeeding and birth stories, and it’ll make a better match.
6) Use existing connections to lay the groundwork for friendships, whether it’s through your child’s preschool, church or neighborhood playgroup, and follow your child’s lead. It takes the pressure off the parents if it’s obvious your children have hit it off.
Got any ideas about this? Feel free to comment!! I’d love to hear it!