In late 2018, I attended my first mommy-and-me playgroup as a stay-at-home dad. At the time, every day seemed the same. I rocked my 5-month-old son to sleep for hours just to have him wake up 20 minutes later. If I picked him up too quickly, he’d cry as if the world was ending. My feeling of utter worthlessness was compounded by societal stereotypes that I saw on TV of fathers being bumbling fools who couldn’t operate a diaper and heard in well-meaning comments from strangers on the street who called me “Mr. Mom.”
The playgroup met at a temple a mile away from my house in Albany, New York. I placed my son on a blanket and saw that most moms were grouped together, sharing stories, giving advice and planning play dates. The only other dad sat alone at the other end of the room, serving his daughter snacks from a diaper bag.
Playgroups involving music, reading and play time have been shown to be a powerful resource for both kids and caregivers. Compared to the United States, where playgroups are more informal, playgroups in Australia are recognized in government curriculum as important early interventions alongside preschool and kindergarten. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, they can help children improve social skills, confidence and speech, and serve as gateways into early education, mental health services and other support resources.
I have witnessed these benefits firsthand as I watched my son push his imagination — raising fortresses of blocks and knocking them down — at playgroup. We bonded while clapping and jumping to songs and rhymes, increasing his motor skills. Over time, he learned to negotiate with peers over who got to play with plastic pots in the kitchen set.
And yet, I constantly felt I didn’t belong. One mom continually tossed her son to me, telling us to have “man time.” Another saw me as an outsider, so she confided in me that she had difficulty connecting with the women but was looking to set play dates. Once she had a couple of female friends, she stopped talking to me.
This outsider predicament is a common experience for dads. When Lance Somerfeld and Matt Schneider co-founded City Dads Group 12 years ago, many at-home fathers were struggling through their days alone like I did, searching for a community that didn’t exist. Schneider said some City Dads members would make mom friends and then be told that their friends’ husbands weren’t comfortable with the friendship. More commonly, he said, men were completely ignored.
Others reported going to playgrounds with their kids and being made to feel like “predators” after other caregivers acted nervous and avoided them. Schneider said he attempted to join a Lower Manhattan mothers group, but was told they didn’t allow dads because the space had to be “comfortable for moms.” For Somerfeld, creating a specialized group was essential, not just to foster community but as a resource to learn how to be the best caregivers they could be.
Today more fathers are being recognized as active caregivers, Somerfeld told me, adding, “It’s an exciting time.” More caregiving spaces are centering titles on children and family, not the type of caretaker. But there is still a deficit. Many parenting support groups remain mom-focused or mom-exclusive, and there are plenty of venues promoting “mommy and me” meetups and art programs. With the number of at-home dads rising every year, it’s high time, and simply good business, to market toward us, too.
But not everyone thinks creating dads groups is the answer. Dr. Jordan Shapiro, the author of the book “Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad,” disagreed with the concept of gendered playgroups entirely. “Playgroups should be about what’s in the best interest of the kid,” he told me, and playgroups based around a gender binary can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices.
It’s OK for like-minded dads to get together for a beer, but gendered playgroups, Shapiro said, “only serve to reinforce problematic power structures.” Even though dads can feel like outsiders in playgroup culture, the “mommy and me” construct reinforces the myth that mothers have “magical bonds” with children, putting all the pressure on mothers for caretaking duties — something they take on at a drastically disproportionate rate — and saddles them with guilt if they choose to focus on careers. At the same time, it pushes dads away, he said.
After several months in the mommy-and-me temple playgroup, I branched out to non-gender-based activities, like story times at local libraries, but found the same politics at work. Moms planned play dates with each other, referencing events they’d found on mom-centered online sites. Some moms didn’t talk to me. One mom complimented everything I did, but called me “Daddy Day Care.”
I found myself avoiding the few other men in groups, sitting across the room and dodging eye contact, worried that talking to them would distance me even more from the women.
Thankfully, my isolation didn’t last forever. One Wednesday morning at my local Baby Bounce group, my son was banging on the seat of a chair as Miss Melissa, his favorite librarian, read a story. A nearby mom shot him a smile, snickering at his antics. Playtime came, and her daughter helped my son destroy train tracks, while the mom — my first playgroup friend — and I bonded over our experiences co-sleeping with our kids.
We messaged each other updates on our children and new story times to hit up. She wasn’t Jewish, but her family joined mine for Shabbat dinner. I felt more secure once I had a buddy. My son and I would hang out after playgroups ended. I talked with other caregivers as my son served everyone fake ice cream. If I noticed another dad sitting alone, I made it a point to ask how he was doing.
The mommy-and-me playgroup I first attended went virtual, and my son and I attend every Friday, clapping and singing Shabbat songs. Six months ago, the group changed its name to Baby and Toddler Time. I called Amy Drucker, the group leader, who had since become a friend, and inquired about what prompted the switch. She told me another full-time father didn’t feel welcome and asked to change the name.
“It never would have occurred to me,” Drucker said. “Not because I’m closed-minded, just because what we were doing was working, and you get comfortable and you start to rest on your laurels.” And then she added, “That was always what those groups were called.”
This summer, as the world reopened a bit, my son and I started visiting playgrounds again. We had a new accomplice: my baby daughter. When I saw moms from the playgroups, we gravitated toward each other and planned play dates; we were all desperate for connection. I met new parents along with other caregivers struggling to fit in as their children toddled around. It often wasn’t just the men who stood around awkwardly. Parenting and caregiving is monotonous. It can be lonely. Socialization can feel insurmountable. But we can be welcoming to other caregivers. We can do it because we need community. We can do it because our children need to read together and sing together and learn socialization. We can do it because our children need us to model kindness.
Jay Deitcher is a part-time writer, former social worker, and full-time stay-at-home dad 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.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.