I closed the meeting room door and walked to the front of the community center, trying not to draw attention to myself.
No such luck: the two women at the front counter looked at me.
“My wife is still in there,” I said.
But I’d not answered their unspoken question: why was I leaving the new parent group early? My wife and I had always attended together, with our new baby.
I walked out.
Nothing had prepared my wife and I for the difficulty of feeding our first child. Sprout nursed poorly and gained weight slowly, and our pediatrician told us that we were one bad weight check away from a “serious conversation.” My wife and I didn’t know exactly what such a conversation would entail, but we sure as hell didn’t want to fail at feeding our baby. We scrambled, doing everything we could to set matters right. We supplemented Sprout’s diet with formula, rented a baby scale, and began meeting with a lactation consultant to turn things around. (Thankfully, we never had that “serious conversation.”)
Perhaps sensing our exhaustion and need for community, our lactation consultant invited us to attend one of the “new parent groups” she facilitated every week. She encouraged us to attend together, knowing that I’d chosen to be a stay-at-home dad and was a full partner in my wife’s maternity leave.
We started attending the groups when Sprout was little more than a month old: first one time slot and then switching to another. The meetings became a weekly ritual. We got out of the house (which was a big deal in itself), and we met other first-time parents who, like us, were struggling to make sense of their transformed lives.
The new parent group gathered in a nondescript conference room cleared of tables and chairs at the rear of the community center. We all sat on the floor in a broad oval, soft baby blankets spread before us atop utilitarian office carpet, where our babies could practice lifting their heads during tummy time, sleep, or have a diaper changed. There, the lactation consultant led us in conversations about feeding, sleep, baby gear, developmental milestones, and navigating tensions and sharing parenting responsibilities within our marriages. About us, diaper bags lined the walls, ever ready, and a traffic jam of strollers waited just outside the conference room door.
We and the other attendees were each a tangle of vulnerabilities. But, together, we were not alone.
Not alone, but with a twist: I was almost always the only dad in the room.
This wasn’t a surprise. Our lactation consultant had told us that getting more dads involved in the new parent groups was one of her goals. Indeed, the term “new parent group” reflected a conscious choice: in the not-so-old days, such meetings would have been called, simply, “mommy groups.”
As far as my wife and I were concerned, we were a team, and I belonged beside her and Sprout. Having decided to become a stay-at-home dad, I was freed from the austerity of American-style, too-short-if-it’s-even-available paternity leave. And as the soon-to-be primary caregiver in our household, I was desperate to learn everything I could and find peers.
But when I sat down among the new moms for the first time, I felt suddenly unsure of how to act.
I’d not anticipated how extensively the conversations would focus—necessarily—on moms’ bodies. This shouldn’t have surprised me: after all, my own family’s life revolved around troubleshooting Sprout’s breastfeeding. But although I was welcome and trusted at home, I didn’t know whether my perspective would be welcomed by the moms in the group. I feared I would misstep and speak “in place of” my wife about our family’s experiences with feeding. And I didn’t know whether the other moms would feel comfortable speaking in front of me.
Moreover, at any given moment, at least one baby in the group was nursing, whether easily or fitfully, with or without a nursing cover. I feared that my gaze might settle accidentally in the wrong place.
I did my best. When a mom talked about her body—whether an injury or the perennial mystery of achieving a proper latch between baby and breast—I listened respectfully, and I deferred to my wife about the same. I cultivated a kind of selective inattention, so I would know where not to look. And I tried to keep my anxiety about doing the right thing under wraps so I wouldn’t seem creepy.
More than anything, I wanted to participate and be welcomed for my contributions. I wanted to find peers on whom I could depend and who would trust me in turn. I joined the conversation whenever I felt I could, about topics like baby gear, sleep patterns, tummy time, and milestones. Over time, as I started getting to know some of the moms, I worried less about how I would be perceived.
After one of the sessions, a woman who often sat near me asked if I’d ever gotten grief from any of the moms for being there. I don’t know what prompted her question, whether personal curiosity, a desire to bring her own husband to a meeting, or awareness of dissatisfaction within the larger group. No one had asked me that before. I chalked it up to growing rapport and an interest in my experience.
“No,” I told her, no one had ever pushed back on my presence. I went on to share how I’d appreciated being able to hear the moms talk about their husbands. All of the moms in the group were either on maternity leave or staying at home, and I felt fortunate to hear some of them speak candidly about interpersonal tensions with working husbands. Work had pulled these men quickly away from their new babies during the day, so that they could not develop as intimate or practiced an understanding of the rhythms and tasks (and exhaustion) of infant care. Even in the earliest months of their babies’ lives, these moms were already painfully aware that competence and identification with caregiving were distributed inequitably within their homes, and some felt unappreciated and unseen for the substantial work they did to care for their babies every day, so much of which depended on their own bodies.
I’d listened, thinking ahead to how my wife and I might mitigate analogous (if differently gendered) tensions when she returned to work. These women’s stories also left me feeling deeply grateful for the privilege of being fully involved in caregiving from the outset.
I’d listened, confident that all welcomed my listening.
Then, one day, as we all settled into our chosen spots on the floor, our babies on blankets, in carseats, or at the breast, the facilitator asked for feedback about how future parent groups could be improved. We went around the circle, each of us offering our perspectives. My wife said she hoped the schedule would allow me to continue attending a group after she returned to work. Sprout would be attending daycare on some days and staying home with me on others, and we hoped that future groups would be scheduled throughout the week, to make them accessible for families with different schedules.
Then, a bit further around the circle, one of moms said that nursing would be easier if no men attended.
My body flushed with heat. I felt intensely visible as an outlier and a problem: there was only one man in the room every week, after all, and that was me. I tried to keep a steady expression, but I was sure the nervous blush of my cheeks would betray me to anyone who looked in my direction. And I tried not to look at who might be looking back at me.
A moment later, another mom agreed that no men should attend.
I don’t know what motivated these requests, and I’ve no reason to think that any personal animus was involved. But the practical implication was obvious: some of the moms felt that I shouldn’t be there. How many felt that way? I had no idea. But I did know that rejection by the moms around me was one my greatest fears as a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad. I felt like a stranger instead of a fellow parent, unable to discern who welcomed me.
I also had a decision to make. I could stay and, in doing so, make a tacit statement that my presence had value and I needed the group as much as everyone else. Or I could leave, in deference to the two moms’ stated feelings—which, for all I knew in that moment, might be shared by many others.
“What should I do?” I whispered to my wife, but she had no better idea than I did.
I decided to leave. I stood up, muttered an excuse, and threaded a path through the diaper bags and car seats and out the door. I did so because I was afraid that, if I stayed, I’d be judged as being the kind of man who persists in invading the intimate space of women without consent. No matter how much I wanted to insist on my own value, I could not bear to be the guy who won’t take “no” for an answer.
My wife stayed behind with Sprout, and I walked to a nearby bookstore, where I disappeared into the aisles and tried to distract myself from my sadness and embarrassment; from the emptiness of having become unmoored. When we reunited, my wife and I felt lost. Our lactation consultant and the community center were crestfallen at what had happened, and they reached out to us and affirmed our value, but we felt vulnerable in a way we couldn’t stomach.
We decided to stop attending the new parent groups.
A while later, on a trip to a local play gym with Sprout, my wife and I ran into some of the moms who’d been in the room when I left.
They opened their arms to us. One mom said she missed us and invited us to return. Another shared that, earlier during the same day I’d walked out, her husband had debated whether to attend. Ultimately, he’d declined. I can only imagine what he must have thought when he learned about my experience that day.
Feeling affirmed, we returned to one of the new parent groups during the waning days of my wife’s maternity leave. We chose the time slot we’d attended originally: the thought of returning to the one we’d just left behind was too painful.
The moms with whom we reconnected most strongly—and their husbands, whom we met later—became friends. Two of them lived only a few blocks away from us, so we started meeting for walks and park playdates, and soon these grew to include other neighborhood families with children the same age. In its heyday, this neighborhood network organized playdates in our homes, joint birthday parties, and a regular “wine night” for the moms. Eventually, the network fragmented among different preschools and elementary schools, and some families moved away, but we remain resources to each other, reachable by email.
However, the men in the neighborhood network never organized any kind of gathering to bond through our common status as dads and help meet each other’s needs. As a group, we mostly encountered each other at our kids’ birthday parties. My wife pushed me multiple times to organize something for the dads, but I never did, and neither did any of the other men. I can only speak to my own reason for not reaching out: I was scared. But that’s a story I’ll come back to later.
It took me several years to find the courage to tell this story: although it ends with neighborhood community, I wasn’t prepared to tend the wound of rejection at its core. I needed time and distance to revisit the experience without judgment and discern its fuller contexts. At first, my goal was simply to share one man’s experience of navigating “new parent” spaces, including the emotional stakes that men often keep to ourselves. But I quickly came to understand that, although my particular wound was my own, it was never about me. My experience flows from an ongoing transformation in American culture.
As American dads like me get more involved in raising our children, we participate increasingly in social spaces formerly identified with moms, and this makes parents of all genders vulnerable to one another in new ways. Dads who venture into these spaces fear we will misstep and be rejected. Moms and nursing parents—whose own bodies are the focal points for so much parental anxiety and intimacy—cope with the revelation of stories and bonds they’d once shared primarily with each other, now with a man looking and listening in. In these encounters, we parents are vulnerable to each other in direct proportion to our need for the support and knowledge found in community.
But though America’s old patriarchal assumptions about who is a worker, who is a breadwinner, and who is a caregiver are changing in many quarters, the government and workplace policies that keep American men from focusing on their newborns are agonizingly slow to change. My presence at the new parent group—and at home—was a product of privilege: my wife had a good job that provided for our family’s needs. Her economic value as a software engineer at a technology company far outstripped mine as an education researcher and non-profit worker. As a result, there was never any serious question about which of us might stay home. The only question was whether I wanted to stay home—which I did want to do—and my wife’s economic status empowered me to opt out of the institutions that would have separated me from the intimate daily work of caregiving. In turn, my commitment to our home empowered my wife to keep digging in at work.
I was an outlier: the dad in the room. American culture increasingly wants dads to be there for their kids without reservation, but we are only just beginning to figure out how to welcome dads into that greater fullness of themselves while also honoring the needs of the moms and nursing parents with whom they need to interact. So long as men remain outliers, our practices for negotiating dignity and safety in our community centers, our parks, our churches, and our schools will remain episodic and fraught. We can, and will, hurt each other.
Only by committing ourselves to community, even in deep discomfort, do we learn, heal, and become part of something bigger and more fully ourselves.
An early version of “The Dad In the Room” first appeared in STAND Magazine, Issue #3, Spring 2016.