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When it Comes to Stay-at-Home Parenting, Is it a Mom’s World?

Aug 22, 2013

Steve Colbert once said that stay-at-home dads are "against nature's laws." Your grandmother probably thinks that, too.

The world that we know today is, of course, different than that of yesteryear. People don't smoke in hospitals, and the moon is no longer a very interesting destination; it's illegal to strike a dog, or a child, or a match on an airplane. In all, we don't live in Mayberry anymore, and we can chalk that up to social change, mostly of the good kind.

Still, as long as there are Hooters restaurants and bowling leagues, there will be pockets of our culture that remain relatively untouched by the advances of the day. Parenting is one of them. Step out with an infant and you step into a world where old stereotypes and habits die hard and where gender roles retain a good whiff of the 1950s.

At the playgroups, mommies' groups, in the parks and the libraries, by and large the women are still doing it by themselves. Whether out of fear, peer pressure or just having other things to do, men aren't.

Of course, there is progress. Now we think "Involved Dad." (We don't say, "Mr. Mom" anymore.) After all, statistics show that the rate of paternity leave has jumped 60 per cent since 2004, although a mere five per cent of fathers are not working while the mother is employed. The statistics are silent on which of these fathers are jobless by choice. Apparently 60 per cent of not very many is still not very many. Which means that if you are Involved Dad, you're on your own. You're also likely unemployed.

Dads out and about
When I recently took time off to care for my son, James, I didn't know any of that and neither did my neighbour, Brad. Like me, he decided (read: wife runs own business and makes more money than he does) to take time off to care for his newborn (read: we were both doing what we were told).

It was spring and we strapped our respective infants on our respective backs (my backpack is the upgrade; his is the one that didn't test as well) and set off for lunch downtown. We were feeling pretty good about things, and why shouldn't we? Out and about with the fruit of our loins and all that. "Look at us," we thought, "we're Involved Dads!"

No sooner were we in the door of the restaurant when the snickering and the glances began. The hostess wasn't much help, either. "Where are your wives?!" she asked, roughly with the force of a sneeze. Her reaction, part confusion and part hilarity, took a bit of wind out of our sails, if you get my meaning.

We're here! Get used to us!
The reality is that guys with babies in the middle of the week and with no women in sight isn't quite enough to stop traffic, but it's close. At the Legion we got a round of applause, which was maybe surprising, given whatever you might otherwise think of the Legion. Middle-aged women swarmed us at a restaurant. "You guys are awesome!" one said. "My husband didn't even change a diaper!" said another to a round of knowing nods. There, and everywhere else we went, people seemed to have something to say, with many of the comments falling within some predictable categories. The unsupported, bitter moms: "It's about time!" The doubters: "You don't do this every day, do you?" Those who vote conservative: "Now I think I've seen it all!" The retired school teachers: "I think this is great!"

You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. This is the world you and I both live in. People notice and remark because you are noticeable and remarkable. And there's a reason: women don't think you are capable of doing this and men wonder why you would try.

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, being Involved Dad is like going off on a peacekeeping mission or installing a ceiling fan: it takes courage and fortitude, but that's no excuse for not doing it. In time, and probably sooner than we think, people will look back - I'm utterly convinced of this - and wonder why men didn't do it more. When they do, we'll be able to gloat a little, noting that we were ahead of the pack. That's something. And, by pitching in, we're also taking time with our children that we will cherish - I'm convinced of this, too - for the rest of our lives.Of course, some days we think that maybe we really should be somewhere else, and that perhaps there is something we could be doing that is better suited to our skill sets. But there's a conventional wisdom here that's worth repeating: When the chips are ready to be counted, we probably won't wish that we had worked more, made more money or impressed more strangers. We'll wish we had spent more time with our children and that there were more giggles to coax with tickles or smiles. Sadly, it isn't forever, so we're right to grab the opportunity while we have the chance.

We're dads and, at end of the day, this is what we do. We were made for this.

So you're going to be staying home...
I think it's safe to say that men aren't generally mentally prepared for round-the-clock, day-after-day child care. Therefore, some pointers:
Be realistic. Mat leave isn't a holiday. You can plan to learn guitar or while away the hours shooting paint balls at the composter, but the fact is you probably won't even have time to pee. The goal is caring for your child and keeping your sanity at the same time. If you can do that, congratulate yourself.
Find a friend. Mommies' groups are great if you like, literally, being the odd man out. No one wants to sit next to you, eye contact is avoided and the conversation is halting. It's awkward, and play dates are, too. Your wife doesn't really want you spending the day with other women. Their husbands don't want that, either. Instead, find some other guys who are in the same boat as you. Word-of-mouth is probably still the best way to find someone. Ask friends and neighbours if they know of any other Involved Dads. Haunting the local coffee shop, child in tow, is something to try - sooner or later, any dads out there are going to need to get out, and the coffee shop is the first place they're going to go. Some websites host meet and greet boards, but it does seem that for the people that live in bigger cities, there are more options than for others.
Get a new diaper bag. You'll feel much better with a diaper bag that doesn't shout, "Mom!" Dadgear.com has diaper bags with Camaro flames, camouflage and skulls. Diaper Dude makes bags that look like tool belts, which seems a bit desperate, but does make a point: Ditch the pink and the flowers.
Walk tall. By spending the time together, you are doing something of value that will remain longer than the dismay at finding, on returning to the office, that your desk has been moved next to the photocopier.
Accept that it isn't easy. It's hard, lonely, and for many people, a stay-at-home dad isn't understood. Remember that it's not rocket science. It's hard and lonely, but when your wife comes home, she's had a busy day, too, and didn't get to go out for lunch with the other dads. She'll remind you of this. The correct response is, "Yes, of course you're right."
Know that "You're Amazing!" I heard this from strangers. Older women, sure, but that's something. For the first time in my life, I was amazing. You are, too. Treasure it.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, August 2008.
Read these related articles on ParentsCanada!
More and more fathers are taking parental leave
How dads can bond with their babies
Where does Dad fit in?
A dad shares 15 parenting secrets

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