The Brotherhood of the Stay-at-Home Dad

A group of fathers and their children meet weekly in New York for outings, including to the Ancient Playground in Central Park. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

A group of fathers and their children meet weekly in New York for outings, including to the Ancient Playground in Central Park. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

An excerpt from this article:

“Choo-choo-wa! Choo-choo-wa! Choo-choo-wa-wa-wah!”

The words — the theme song of a children’s cartoon — were being bellowed by six grown men huddled on a makeshift stage in a hotel banquet room.

The song leader, an education specialist, held up a baby rattle.

“What can we do to encourage play?” he asked the all-male audience.

“Give them alone time,” one man offered.

“Follow their lead,” another said.

“Have stuff around that they can interact with,” a third suggested.

All were correct. And why wouldn’t they be? They were stay-at-home fathers observing a presentation on children and play.

The men are part of a group called the National At-Home Dad Network, which on an early fall weekend had gathered here for an annual retreat (and a rare night without the kids). The men — 100 in total — had traveled from all over: the Midwest, Canada, Washington State. Over two days, they would attend a workshop on seatbelt safety and bro out at a Colorado Rockies game. They traded recipes — Tex-Mex spaghetti squash, lentil soup, piled into a box in the lobby — and asked questions of a panel of working women. (“Is it weird when your husband gets you a gift with your own money?”; “Who handles your finances?”) The men exchanged email addresses and made plans to meet up in playgrounds across the country.

The National At-Home Dad Network drew 100 men to its annual convention. Credit Brad Torchia for The New York Times
By Sunday, they left, as the convention organizer put it, “better men, better husbands, better fathers.” It was the largest gathering of stay-at-home fathers ever, according to the organizers.

Some may wonder why fathers need a convention at all. But these men said the answer was simple: They wanted other dads to talk to.

At-home mothers have every support resource in the book, as well as a changing vernacular for how to refer to them (they too are “working moms”). Yet when it comes to dads who are the primary caretakers of their children — a group that is growing swiftly, both in size and visibility — the resources remain dismal. Few books. Fewer community groups.

“You’ll hear many guys describe it: I’m alone on an island in a vast sea,” said Jim O’Dowd, the conference organizer, who is a former mechanical engineer and a father of four. “There’s no history, no social structure, no guidebook. A guy jumps into this blind.”

And yet, he is also more visible than ever. According to a June study by the Pew Research Center, stay-at-home dads now account for more than 16 percent of at-home caretakers, a number that has more than doubled over the past decade (and still does not factor in dads who work part time).

By no means are single-earner households the norm in this country. And yet along with women’s economic rise — 23 percent of wives now outearn their husbands — has emerged a new kind of male caretaker: the out-and-proud involved dad.

Sure, he raises his children differently than a woman would. But he’s also there by choice. He isn’t a product of the recession, necessarily. And, according to a Boston College survey, a majority of his full-time working brothers wish they could join him — if their wives’ incomes only allowed.

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